Gareth Southgate has urged England to improve on their “appalling” record at European Championships after being delivered a draw that sees them face Croatia, the Czech Republic and the winner of one of the play-offs, which could be Scotland, at Euro 2020.
The England manager will urge his squad to seize the opportunity of playing all three group games at Wembley and re-kindle the spirit of Euro 96 – when he was part of the team – and which is the furthest they have gone in the tournament.
England reached the semi-finals then and although they finished third in 1968 it was just a four-nation tournament. There have been
two quarter-finals but on four occasions England did not even get out of the group while there was the embarrassment of losing to Iceland in the last-16 three years ago which was Roy Hodgson’s last game in charge.
Images of that traumatic defeat were flashed on the screens during the draw in the Romexpo conference centre, which Southgate attended.
“It's a reminder of how far the players have come and the confidence of the players that's been key,” Southgate said. “At the start there was a big re-build on their confidence and it feels as if they enjoy wearing the shirt again where for a period that wasn't necessarily the case.”
Southgate said England have to build on reaching the World Cup semi-finals where of course they lost in Moscow to Croatia who they will play in their opening Group D game on June 14.
“The opportunity is for us to go further than so many teams in the past and our European Championship record has been appalling,” Southgate said. “So this team has a chance to make a difference. They’ve got the opportunity to really excite our country again. They know what that felt like from a slightly further distance (in Russia) and this time they get the chance so feel it, you know, really close up.”
Euro 2020 – with seven games in all at Wembley including both semi-finals and the final – will be the closest England have come to hosting a major tournament since Euro 96. “All I know from ’96 is that it is going to be a brilliant atmosphere for those group matches and we have every incentive to progress as far as we can,” Southgate said.
He confirmed, as expected, that England will be based at St George’s Park with the whole complex, including the on-site Hilton Hotel, turned over to the Football Association for the duration.
“That's a good thing really, because we're really familiar with the surroundings,” Southgate explained. “We're secure. We've got incredible facilities. We're not having to go and search now for something and pair a hotel with a training ground and find out the logistics of all of that.”
In the next few days England will finalise three more friendly opponents – having already announced a fixture against Denmark – with one more match at Wembley before going on the road. A fixture will be played at another stadium in England and one more abroad as Southgate “breaks up” the preparations.
His mind will also turn to the final make-up of his squad and it was interesting that in answering a question about Kyle Walker’s chances of being included, having been left out for recent selections, Southgate name-checked Chelsea’s highly-promising right-back Reece James, who is just 19. “Reece James is also coming through and is another one that is pushing in that area of the pitch,” he said. “So we have competition, but it would be foolish to rule Kyle out.”
The same applies to Dele Alli who is enjoying a resurgence under new head coach Jose Mourinho at Tottenham Hotspur although, again, Southgate was circumspect. Alli, he said, was playing as a “number 10 and that’s his best position”. Unfortunately for him England – at present – play with a different system, a 4-3-3, although if Alli’s form continues it would be a surprise to see him not at least make the squad.
It will be the fourth time that England have faced Croatia in a competitive fixture in two years, having finished ahead of them in the Nations League. They then come up against the winners of the play-offs between Scotland, Israel, Norway and Serbia – on June 19 and, finally, the Czech Republic on June 23.
The Czechs are also familiar opponents having been in the same qualifying group and inflicting England’s first qualifying defeat in 43 matches when they won in Prague although they lost 5-0 at Wembley – where the two nations will meet in June – last March.
Attention also focussed on the fact that if England win their group they will play a last-16 tie against the runners-up from Group F – a true ‘Group of Death’ – which includes seeded Germany, the world champions France, the European champions Portugal and possibly Iceland again.
But if England are themselves runners-up they would receive a relatively-easier draw in Copenhagen against the second-placed nation in Group which could be either Poland or Sweden.It is conceivable, if either gets through the playoffs and group, that it could be Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Even so England would then face the Group F winners in the last eight with Southgate saying he does not want to second-guess and would prefer to concentrate on trying to win every game to maintain momentum.
Wales were placed in Group A alongside Italy, Switzerland and Turkey, and will play their first two matches in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan where coach Ryan Giggs said they therefore will be based.