World Cup: Repeat of Robson's last England run can restore Southgate's reputation in Qatar

Gareth Southgate could be forgiven for feeling a little tired. This looks like a war he has already won before.

For many, Southgate was not a popular appointment as England manager in 2016. He got the job anyway, perhaps by dint of an absence of obvious alternatives.

Some would argue the same issue might be keeping him in employment now.

Despite Southgate's achievements as England boss, reaching a first major semi-final since 1990 and then a first final since 1966, the tide of public opinion has turned again in recent months.

His Three Lions side have been booed off the pitch more than once; it seems unlikely television cameras will pan to supporters in Southgate-inspired waistcoats when England kick off their World Cup against Iran.

A dreadful Nations League campaign, which saw England relegated, felt like the beginning of the end for this manager. Qatar might represent a natural conclusion to his cycle.

It will be Southgate's third major tournament. Only Walter Winterbottom, England's first manager, has ever been to four; Alf Ramsey, Bobby Robson, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Roy Hodgson each bowed out after three to mixed success.

Going into this World Cup, Southgate might well take inspiration from Robson, whose last tournament was by far his best – in the face of public and media distrust.

The late great is now remembered as one of England's most popular managers; that was certainly not the case heading into Italia 90. Robson's last run in the top job coloured the perception of him forevermore.

As Robson wrote in his autobiography 'Farewell but Not Goodbye': "Emotion, more than reason, determines the public's attitudes to our England teams. Logic comes a remote second to passion and patriotism. Within days, the most damning verdict can be reversed by a good result." The chapter was titled "Zeroes to heroes".

Bobby Robson and Gareth Southgate
Bobby Robson and Gareth Southgate

Southgate will surely feel he is similarly only one win away from getting his country back onside. As much as the 1990 World Cup, Russia 2018 would suggest he is right.

"I have seen the cycle of war with the media," Southgate said in September. "I have seen the absolute love-in, and we are somewhere in the middle of that [cycle] – or maybe not quite in the middle."

He added: "I never got too carried away with what happened before, and I am not too down about it now."

While Southgate plans for life as England manager in 2023 and beyond – his contract runs until 2024 – he perhaps cannot operate with the same freedom as Robson, who was informed in advance he would be let go after the World Cup and so secured a job as PSV coach.

The leak of that move ahead of the finals made Robson only more unpopular in some quarters, but there was at least clarity for all involved.

Crucially, too, England were in better form then than they are now. A winless run of six – spanning their entire Nations League campaign – is the Three Lions' worst ever heading into a major tournament.

For all the gloom and doom in 1990, when England failed to win either of their final two warm-up friendlies, results since their Euro 88 failure had been relatively encouraging. A 2-1 defeat to Uruguay three weeks before their opening match was England's only loss in 19 between the two tournaments.

Southgate's side have this time lost three of 15 since the Euro 2020 final, with each of those reverses coming in their past six outings.

Within those matches, though, Southgate followed Robson in finding a potential finals star.

Paul Gascoigne was 23 when he made his World Cup debut against the Republic of Ireland, but his international experience to that point was not vastly different to that now of 19-year-old Jude Bellingham.

Bellingham has actually already been to one finals, although his 55 minutes at the Euros came across three substitute appearances in England wins. In Qatar, he is set to be relied upon as a key player – benefiting from injury to Kalvin Phillips, Jordan Henderson's fading form and, of course, his own sparkling performances.

Gascoigne was "an obligatory choice", Robson said, after a goal and two wonderful assists in a friendly against Czechoslovakia. "A jewel of a player", the England manager said Gascoigne was "in his element": "The bigger the game, the more Paul loved it."

Without contributing in the same fashion in front of goal, Bellingham's display in September's 3-3 draw against Germany – his 17th cap but only his eighth start – left a comparable lasting impression.

The midfielder led England in shots, passes, successful passes, passes in the opposition half, touches, duels, tackles and interceptions. It was a showing that could not possibly be ignored – the sort that would help his manager considerably in Qatar, putting paid to accusations of boring football.

There is no reason Bellingham cannot thrill in the same fashion as Gascoigne, who created more chances than any England team-mate in 1990, led the entire tournament in successful dribbles and trailed only Diego Maradona in fouls won.

Paul Gascoigne
Paul Gascoigne

With Gascoigne's help, Robson exceeded expectations, lost only in dramatic fashion and gave fans hope for the future in the form of his new talisman.

Southgate has already ticked off the first two – twice.

So high have hopes risen over the course of his tenure it is difficult to imagine how Southgate can again overperform, but the emergence of Bellingham might provide enough highlights to ensure he is remembered fondly if this is to be the end. After all, he really ought to be.

Through two tournaments, Southgate has delivered eight wins; Robson finished with only five from three.

There were calls just weeks out from the 2022 finals for the England manager to be sacked, but such a drastic development was never likely with that track record.

Furthermore, only Hodgson, in 2012, has taken the Three Lions into a tournament without first overseeing qualifying, and he still had two games to prepare for the European Championship; the timing of this World Cup would have left any last-minute appointment without any.

Southgate deserved the opportunity to lead this team at least one more time. Whether he continues in the job beyond December may or may not depend on how the tournament plays out.

His plea to fans in September would also be wisely heeded: "I would urge the supporters to get behind the team. How they deal with me at the end or whenever, on the phone-ins or wherever else, is completely different."

Victory against Iran, as against Tunisia in 2018, as belatedly against Egypt in 1990, will surely cut through the noise.

There are questions and concerns, of course, but history has shown this to be far too early to assess a managerial reign, with the World Cup possessing the power to change everything – for Southgate, for Bellingham, for England.