Gareth Southgate has set out the tough new terms of his England era by delivering a series of reality checks to the country’s top footballers and effectively abolishing the captaincy.
After naming his first squad as permanent manager – which did not feature Wayne Rooney or Theo Walcott, but did include Jermain Defoe and debutants Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse – Southgate made it clear that sentiment will count for nothing under him by:
1. Telling his England players that they are not as good as they might think they are.
2. Making it clear that Rooney is no longer default captain and offering him no guarantees of a recall.
3. Dropping Walcott on his 28th birthday.
4. Sending an unwelcome message to Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho that he wants Marcus Rashford to play for the under-21s this summer.
Southgate also warned his 26-man squad for the double-header against Germany on Wednesday and Lithuania four days later that they will not be given a day off next week.
Having last month visited England rugby union head coach Eddie Jones, Southgate appears to have borrowed the Australian’s no-nonsense approach.
Asked how he felt about holding one of the biggest jobs in football, Southgate said: “Well it’s not if we’ve only won three knockout games in 27 years, respectfully.
“It is on our island, but I remember going to the World Cup in Brazil and they had those montages before the game of highlights of previous tournaments. It suddenly struck me ‘we’re not on them, none of our players are on them’.
“We think we’re whatever, but I’m looking at it and there’s all the Brazilians, the Spaniards, the French and we’re not there. And I’m almost sinking into my seat because you walk in there thinking you’re part of England, which I’m massively proud to be, but actually, on the world stage, we’re not there at the moment and we’ve got to turn up.
“Whatever we think we are as a nation, we’ve not been delivering. We seem to have won medals in almost every other sport and ours is the missing piece. That drives me on as much as anything, the need to start recognising where we are and how we then bridge the gap.
“Sometimes we get wrapped up in the profile of our League. Eight or 10 years ago, we were always involved in Champions League semi-finals and finals, and that isn’t the case anymore. I think there’s a harsh lens needed on some of the things we are doing. We need to look at who the top teams are and how we get to their level.”
Rooney faces a fight to win back his place and can no longer consider himself captain under Southgate’s new approach to the position, even though he has been invited to a players’ meeting next Monday.
“I don’t think he expects, if he is not playing every week for his club, to be picked in this sort of situation,” said Southgate. “He is very mature in this sort of discussion.
“We are going to have a meeting with all of the players about what we feel the next 18 months will look like. He will be part of that. I guess for all of them the first point is to be playing as regularly as possible.
“We have to look at Wayne as a No 10, which is his predominant role. In the last two games we’ve played Dele Alli there, we’ve played Adam Lallana there. Both are playing very well, scoring and assisting for their clubs. Ross Barkley has been playing very well for his club. So there’s competition.
“I can’t dress it up any other way. There are some very good players and it’s a battle to get in this squad. Wayne totally understands that.”
Asked if that meant Rooney still held the title of England captain, Southgate replied: “I don’t quite know who gives it and what it means. I always just assume you pick a team for a game and the captain of that game is the captain.
“We have this thing about ‘an England captain’, but really the captain is the person that is captain in the next game, isn’t it? Always the danger in any sport with naming a ‘captain’ is selection. Always there is a danger with form that it becomes a matter of debate.
“It is more the culture of the team that is set by the leaders in the group that I think is fundamental to us doing well.”
Southgate called Walcott on the morning of his birthday to deliver the bad news that the forward had been left out, despite the fact the Arsenal forward has scored 17 goals in all competitions – more than any other player in his squad.
“I’ve got to say he wasn’t chuffed to bits and I understand that,” said Southgate. “Did he argue his case? Yes, yes. Quite rightly he said, ‘I’m one of the leading goalscorers in the League’. I don’t mind being challenged on that at all. I totally respect that. I don’t expect him to be happy. But I’ve got to make decisions and I think it was the right thing to call him, even though the timing on his birthday probably wasn’t great.”
Rashford’s inclusion in the squad will spark further debate over whether the 19-year-old should play in this summer’s European Under-21 Championship.
“The best thing for him and England would be for him to play in the under-21s this summer,” said Southgate. “It’s a bit more complex than that because he’s also playing quite a lot of football for a player of his age. We have to get the balance right, but if we can have success in the tournament it can give a huge boost for youth development in our country.”
Asked whether he was now braced for a tough conversation with Mourinho over Rashford, Southgate added: “They all are! I’ve no idea at the moment what his thinking would be. It’s obviously something I will discuss with him in private.”