Gareth Southgate has expressed pride in the unifying power of England’s World Cup adventure, which has reconciled him with terrace favourite ‘Three Lions’ after 20 years of hurt and brought respite from political divisions back home.
On the eve of the World Cup semi-final against Croatia, the Three Lions manager gave another masterclass in easy-going charm in a packed media conference at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium – cheerily answering on a range of topics.
They included his team’s use of a rubber chicken during yesterday’s training session in Repino, the cultural phenomenon that his waistcoat and the inescapable chants of “football’s coming home”.
The refrain, lifted from the 1996 track by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds, has been reborn alongside the hopes of the nation this summer but Southgate admitted he has spent two decades avoiding it.
That is perhaps unsurprising given his missed penalty provided the final nail in England’s Euro ’96 coffin, and remains England’s last act in the last four of a tournament until kick-off on Wednesday night. When the song was re-released two years later the song even began with a sample of commentary from the fateful moment.
“Football’s coming home...I couldn’t listen to it for 20 years, frankly,” said Southgate.
“I would just walk out of the room, it is an anthem and has followed the team for a long time but it’s involved some difficult moments as well.
“I don’t choose to stick it on, it’s not on the playlist, but I can listen to it. It has a slightly different feel for me, but it’s nice to hear people enjoying it again. It is nice to be able to put a different frame on it now.
“I still look back on it as an incredible life experience and to be involved with it, I just needed a bit of time to get over it.”
The England boss was also eager to embrace the serious side of England’s unlikely achievement in Russia, which has provided some of the biggest mass celebrations in a generation.
We’ve had the chance to make a difference. Our supporters, our country has had a long time of suffering in terms of football.Gareth Southgate
Southgate’s measured authority throughout the tournament has seen him light-heartedly tipped for political office on social media and he made what appeared a thinly-veiled reference to the societal splits over Brexit as he surveyed the joyous scenes which have taken place up and down the country.
“Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of its unity, and sport has the power to do that (unite people),” he said. Football in particular has the power to do that. We can feel the energy and feel support from home and it’s a very special feel, a privilege for us.
“We’ve had the chance to make a difference. Our supporters, our country has had a long time of suffering in terms of football. The enthusiasm they have for these players, not only because of the way they’ve played but how they’ve conducted themselves…they’ve been brilliant ambassadors for our country, everybody can see they are proud to wear the shirt.”
Southgate drew parallels between the class of ‘96 and his current generation, noting similarities but also the current squad’s relative inexperience.
Whether or not they can outstrip their predecessors – Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams et al - by reaching a major final remains to be seen but Southgate is sure they will give a good account of themselves regardless of the outcome.
“The feel of this group of players is very similar to the players we had then,” he said. “But that team was a lot more experienced in terms of its age and experience of big matches. We have emerging leaders. At that time, the team had six captains of their clubs. There was a lot of leadership in the group.
“But we’ve approached it the same way, a lot of guys enjoying our football. That is what these guys have done. It’s another step in a journey. We feel we’re in a good place playing well.
“Football is a low scoring game with random events that can happen, but I’m certain our team will play well. I have complete trust they’ll go and play in the way they have throughout this tournament.”