Inspirational Gareth Southgate is proving a tournament expert after 25-year quest for redemption with England

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Gareth Southgate is too polite to give a warts and all assessment of that day, five years ago when Roy Hodgson’s England suffered arguably the nation’s most humiliating defeat at the hands of Iceland.

When he describes it as “painful” – that word is doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Defeat to Iceland in the round-of-16 at Euro 2016 set in motion a chain of events that would change the face of the Three Lions and turn Southgate – after a brief and shambolic dalliance with Sam Allardyce – into a cult figure to the verge of national icon.

Roy Hodgson’s underwhelming reign came to an end that night in Nice when England, already dreaming of a quarter-final, were humbled by Iceland – losing 2-1 and forcing the FA into the kind of root and branch review that has been all too frequent after one disappointment after another at major tournaments over the past 50 years.

Southgate was not everyone’s first choice. But for Allardyce’s loose lips the course of the England could have looked very different. The FA ‘lucked out’ with a man who still does not get the credit his record deserves.

But if England do follow up a World Cup semi-final with European Championship quarter-final and maybe more, Southgate’s expertise at tournament football will have to be acknowledged.

Not that he would ever say that. Even after leading the country to an unforgettable win against Germany and with a clear route to the final ahead of him, Southgate talks about the lottery of the Euros historically.

“The difference between the teams in Europe is really tight,” he said. “You see it whenever there is a round of qualifying fixtures. Ukraine got a draw in Paris in March.

“We’ve seen it in European championships in the past, it’s why Greece won it, it’s why Denmark won it. And you’ve got to be not the best team for a two or four year period - you’ve got to be the best team over the period of three weeks.

“It’s about peaking, it’s about reacting in the right way when things are going wrong, it’s controlling the things you can and not being distracted by so many things that can go against a team and can tear a team apart from within their camp at times.

“So it’s the beauty of tournament football, really. But in European championships, especially. World Cups have tended to go a bit more with form in the main and European Championships have been a lot more random.

“We obviously haven’t really achieved that with great success. I don’t know if that’s because it’s random or it’s gone with form, either way we haven’t done very well with it.”

If Southgate goes deep into back-to-back tournaments then the idea of this latest success being random can be discarded.

It also flies in the face of his meticulous attention to detail since taking charge and his very deliberate process of enacting change right at the heart of the national team.

That his England team is engaging supporters in a manner unlike any since Euro ‘96 is no accident.

That a bloated 26-man squad is so harmonious is the result of a culture shift Southgate has nurtured.

And that the barriers between the players and the media have been blown away is all down to the manager’s absolute determination to break the cycle of boom and bust – sky high expectation and recrimination.

Hodgson, himself, had succeeded in reducing expectations to an all-time low – but the Iceland debacle was a step too far.

“Of course it was painful and some of our boys were involved, but I think it ended up as a reference for us of seeing anxiety of when things don’t quite go to plan,” said Southgate, who was part of a Uefa technical panel for the tournament, allowing him to watch various countries and, no doubt, pick up ideas for the job he never could have imagined he would end up in at that time.

“It was painful of course for everybody. I don’t like talking about it because I have massive respect for Roy. He was so good to me in my time here and he’s been so professional and helpful in allowing me to get on with my job, being there when I’ve wanted to speak to him, supportive, but being in the background and I couldn’t be more appreciative of how he has done that.

“Although of course it was perhaps a seminal moment over the last few years, my consideration all the time is that it was extremely painful for him.”

Iceland should be a reference point as England head into their quarter-final with Ukraine in Rome on Saturday night.

After the celebrations against Germany, it would be easy to look past Ukraine and a return to Wembley for a semi-final against Denmark or Czech Republic.

But when Southgate says there is no danger of complacency, it is easy to take him at his word.

“This is the next step, the next opportunity,” he said. “The opportunity to get to a third semi-final for us in the last few years, a second major tournament semi-final and you’ve got to go back to Sir Alf Ramsey’s time to be able to do that.

“It’s another chance for the team to make history. We’ve moved on from Germany pretty quickly and it’s not easy because you all get lovely messages and if they’re reading the papers or watching television I’m sure there’ll be lots to enjoy for them.

“But the mindset has got to be about Saturday. Not beyond Saturday. There’s not a consideration in our heads beyond Saturday and making sure we’re prepared for this game with Ukraine.

“We want to enjoy it, we are very focussed on where we want to head, we’re not satisfied with where we’ve got to – but we have to deliver that.

“We know now there is an understandable increase in expectation from everybody else and I’ve got to manage that for the players, make sure they stay composed, not anxious about what this could be. It’s totally about staying in the present and focussing on this immediate challenge ahead of us.”

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