Coach oversees rare win against Germany to set up quarter-final tie with Ukraine
Twenty-five years after the lowest point of his career, The Quiet Man last night finally suppressed his tortured past. With his back arched, fists clenched in celebration, Gareth Southgate roared in triumph as his England side roared into the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, for once leaving the Germans to shed tears of despair at Wembley.
His penalty miss in the Euro 96 semi-final shoot-out has been a like a ball and chain to the affable Southgate, a perpetual reminder of a failure which, if converted, could have propelled England into the final and ended “30 years of hurt”.
But last night goals from Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane exorcised the coach’s demons, allowing him to move out of the gloom cast by Germany’s class of 96.
And even if it doesn’t “come home” this year, then at least Southgate gave the nation something to smile about today and a last-eight tie against the Ukraine to look forward to.
For such a thoughtful man, his tactics seem rather basic: just make the side difficult to beat. In tournament football, that means loading your defence, getting through the group phase in a business-like fashion and then picking your way through the knockout stages.
Previously chided for being over-cautious – perhaps reflecting his own career as a cultured defender – Southgate last night laid himself open to further barbs by naming a side that was essentially three at the back but could easily have been interpreted as a seven-man defence. The point was it was fluid, and when the game opened up midway through the second half as both sides strove to avoid extra time, the team came into its own.
The turning point came with the introduction of substitute Jack Grealish, who made a compelling case to start Saturday’s last-eight tie in Rome. Instrumental in both goals, he provided a much-needed link to the often-isolated Kane, who converted the Aston Villa forward’s cross to make it 2-0.
And while Sterling took the plaudits for breaking the deadlock with his third goal of the tournament, much credit must be given to a defence which has yet to be breached, despite three heart-in-the-mouth moments.
For that alone, Southgate has to be respected.