England at Russia 2018: how Gareth Southgate has given the nation a reason to dream

Amidst the uproar, leaked undercover video clips and unprecedented media storm that ignited the departure of ex-England manager, Sam Allardyce, from St George’s Park just under 21 months ago, it was indisputable that the footballing core of a nation was in crisis – not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, though on this occasion, it held an added dimension of uncertainty.

A 100% winning record, Allardyce can thank an Adam Lallana injury time winner against Slovakia for that, made for pleasant reading and a nation was silently apprehensive – a truly passionate Englishman at the helm of the national team, with a strong domestic record and unparalleled passion for his country. Allardyce ticked all the boxes, though two boxes he ticked that weren’t on the FA’s interview criteria were naivety and greed – two central factors that would eventually contribute to his remarkable demise following The Telegraph’s corruption in football sting.

It was borderline comical, seemingly surreal, but in what was such a key period in England’s footballing history, the national team manager was sacked in the furore of a considerable corruption scandal. England were entering a period of critical direction after catastrophic failures, most notably crashing out to Iceland at Euro 2016, and after regimes of McClaren, Capello and Allardyce’s departure, Martin Glenn, CEO of the FA, was faced with an immeasurable ultimatum. It was not an understatement to say England were in crisis, and this managerial appointment was one they simply could not afford to get wrong.

Big names were touted as Allardyce’s successor: Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez; there were even reports that Jose Mourinho was being considered for an approach by the FA. Though silently, and typically in his unassuming manner, England U21’s manager Gareth Southgate was waiting in the wings – given the role on an interim basis and, so importantly, bestowed with little to no expectation. Southgate had earned respect from within England’s national set-up, alongside a three year stint on Teeside with Middlesborough, though even he would be the first to admit that taking the reigns of the England first team was a sizeable step-up, regardless of his pedigree or potential as a manager.

Critics cried loudly, proclamations of inexperience were focal, though in all honesty, Southgate won’t have batted an eyelid. This is a man with ability to manage players, to hone tactical systems and, as he has proven so evidently, a manager who can inspire a nation. In 18 games at the helm, Southgate has recorded just two losses, winning ten and going unbeaten in the process of qualifying for the World Cup. The foundations have been laid for success, and as we approach Russia 2018, once again, England’s fan-base are daring to dream. Though in reality, it’s far from unfounded.

Stability has been evident in abundance, the cohesive ethos and atmosphere of England’s training camp epitomised by Danny Rose’s calm and remarkably honest admission of battling depression, and how England has been his “salvation”. Rose himself admitted he was fortunate to be selected in Southgate’s final 23, though his personal salvation will be elevated to the stature of a nation should the left-back assist in any form of glory in Russia. After 50 years of hurt, as described by The Times’s Henry Winter, the ambitions and aims of a nation have been lifted – Harry Kane is in the finest form of his career, Raheem Sterling has found a new level of goalscoring threat, Jesse Lingard has risen to new heights and Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire and John Stones look to have brought a defensive foundation attracting global envy. This is a team with potential, though have we not heard that far too many times before?

As Russia 2018 looms, with an undeniably favourable group including Panama and Tunisia, England’s prospects of progression look strong. It is often a trademark criticism of the English media to over-hype, over-criticise and put our players in the spotlight to the nth degree, though this time, one senses we could be looking at the best chance of England lifting football’s most prestigious accolade in years, decades, for many, perhaps, even a lifetime.

U17 and U20 World Cup glory in 2017 has proven that England are a nation not lacking in talent – it is often considered a natural hierarchy that the first team set an example to their younger counterparts. In this instance, England’s first team are looking to match the success of their youth teams: St George’s Park is acting as a positive production line, though if it can act as the catalyst to go one further and assist in lifting the World Cup itself, the richest chapter of English footballing history since 1966 will not just be written, but commenced too.

As a nation, it hasn’t been simple for England in the last two years. Football aside, high-profile terror attacks in Manchester and London have shaken a nation to its core. Political instability and uncertainty with the UK departing the European Union has seen tempers rise to unforeseen heights, whilst ultimately, if we’re being truthful, the country is entering a period of true uncertainty. A Western powerhouse that has produced so many iconic creations, exports and ideas, our belief and expectation within the national football team are founded on the basis of the avenues from which our nation has excelled. On June 18th, Harry Kane will captain England in our first game of the tournament against Tunisia, and from the first whistle to the last, the precedent will be set for our World Cup prospects.

Since 1966, England have failed to reach the heights of their predecessors – Bobby Charlton, Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greaves – men who gave our nation the most remarkable footballing feat we have ever achieved. As England prepare to head to Russia, with a winnable group, a talented team and a remarkably promising manager, it would be wrong to suggest we have no hope, no chance or no possibility of progressing to the knock-outs. Given the setting of 2018’s competition, Russia, it would be some story if in a year where the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal saw 23 British diplomats initially expelled from Russia in retaliation, there were 23 English heroes immortalised in footballing history on July 15th in Moscow, though through it all, the hope, the pain, the anticipation and the sole possibility of the unthinkable occurring, we find ourselves proceeding a tournament with pure faith: once more, not for the first time, and not for the last, England are daring to dream.

Written by Tom Newman.

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