England block out the noise of history to focus on Germany’s class of 2021

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<span>Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Jordan Henderson stares back blankly. “What happened with the pizza advert?” the England midfielder asks. Oh, come on, Jordan. The one with your manager, Gareth Southgate, wearing a brown paper bag over his head, with eye-holes cut out, so as not to be recognised as he shares a slice with Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle.

It was shot after Southgate’s notorious penalty shootout miss against Germany at Wembley in the Euro 96 semi-final and saw him being teased by Pearce and Waddle, who missed penalties in the 1990 World Cup semi-final defeat by Germany.

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“Thanks a lot boys, I feel much better now,” Southgate says, taking off the bag and heading off only to walk into a wall. “Ooohhh. This time he’s hit the post,” Pearce roars and, frankly, how can you not be aware of comedy like that?

Henderson is impassive. He has never heard of it and there is a reason for that: he was six years old at the time. Henderson knows about the game, of course, just as he does the one at Italia 90, but the point is that everything which went around it – the pain, the soul-searching, the attempts to dilute it with gallows humour – did not affect him then and it does not affect him now.

England v Germany is back on, the latest showdown of a storied rivalry set for Wembley next Tuesday in the last 16 of Euro 2020. For supporters of a certain vintage it cannot fail to evoke memories of Euro 96, particularly because of the Southgate factor.

Not for Henderson and he is the second-oldest member of the squad, just behind Kyle Walker. “Some of our players weren’t even born then,” adds Marcus Rashford, and he is one of them. There are 11 others.

Marcus Rashford, pictured in action against the Czech Republic, is one of several England players who had not yet been born when England lost against Germany at Euro 96.
Marcus Rashford, pictured in action against the Czech Republic, is one of several England players who had not yet been born when England lost against Germany at Euro 96. Photograph: Matt Dunham/EPA

Most of Southgate’s players remember the 2010 World Cup and another defeat by Germany – this one in the last 16. It was the game in which Frank Lampard had a goal disallowed for 2-2, despite the ball bouncing down off the crossbar and over the line, and England folded to a 4-1 defeat. “If we had VAR then, the goal would have stood,” Rashford says with a smile.

But this England team are facing Joachim Löw’s Class of 2021 and not fighting against the weight of history.

“There is no point fearing the past,” Rashford says. “You can’t go back and change it. What we can change is the result of the next game and put ourselves in the best possible position to win.

“Outside there will be noise, which is right. Anyone who is a fan of football … you get built up for these types of games. In camp it is different because as a player you have to be focused. You don’t have time to get involved in that build-up because there’s just too much emotion in the game and, if you go on the pitch with all that build-up, we could end up with eight men.”

Related: Set pieces, Kane and Covid curveballs: the big issues now facing England | David Hytner

So, play the game and not the occasion. Block out the noise. “That’s what you always try to do,” Henderson says. “Focus on what you can control. It’s a big game and a lot of players thrive off big games. Hopefully we can handle it well.”

The England players enjoyed themselves on Wednesday night with a bit of downtime after the 1-0 win over the Czech Republic the previous evening that saw them top Group D. They had a barbecue at their St George’s Park base; Ed Sheeran was invited and he sang a few songs. The squad also watched the final games from Group F – the seesaw 2-2 draws between Portugal v France and Germany v Hungary.

“We were watching the Portugal game and some lads were watching the Germany game,” Rashford says. “It was a little bit crazy, people just shouting over who scored. It was nice, a moment for the team to sit down and relax because when the games are on you are training hard, and you very rarely get time to come away from it and just be normal people.”

Germany were poor against well-organised opponents who fought to close them down and hit hard on the counter; Löw’s team were fortunate to squeak through thanks to Leon Goretzka’s 84th-minute equaliser. And for the optimists in England, it was possible to feel that Southgate’s players have the ability to execute a similar gameplan, only more effectively: frustrating their rivals, making their punches count.

Henderson said that his phone pinged after the Germany game with a message from Jürgen Klopp, the most influential German in his life. “As soon as the final whistle went, he just sent a smiley face emoji.”

The battle is afoot.

“Germany are still a very good side,” Henderson says. “They’ve got quality all over the pitch. In games like this it’s not about form, it’s about who’s better on the night and puts a performance in. We need to make sure we are 100% ready and I’m sure we will be.”

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