Thursday 22 March 2018, 07:00

Southgate: Leading your country to a World Cup is special

  • Gareth Southgate took charge of England in November 2016

  • Former defender featured as a player at 1998 FIFA World Cup

  • Southgate: “We’ve got some very exciting young players”

Gareth Southgate’s FIFA World Cup™ playing experiences are about as challenging as they come. Making his global finals debut against Tunisia at France 1998, he went on to miss games through injury, come on as a substitute in a huge knockout match in which he experienced extra time and a penalty shootout defeat before heading to Korea/Japan in 2002 and spending the tournament as an unused substitute.

You might say, therefore, that he is perfectly placed to manage a squad of players who are likely to face plenty of their own challenges in a few months’ time. Having taken the job in November 2016 as England’s third manager in a matter of months, Southgate steered his nation to Russia 2018 with an unbeaten qualifying campaign, finishing top of Europe’s Group F.

A twist of fate at the Final Draw means Southgate will make his World Cup coaching debut against Tunisia, with Panama and Belgium their other Group G opponents. The former defender, who appeared 57 times for his country, spoke exclusively to as his preparations for Russia entered their final stages. First of all, how are you finding being England manager? Is the role what you expected it to be? Gareth Southgate: I guess I was fortunate having been the U-21 head coach and having played for England, I knew most of what the role was about. I worked quite closely with Roy [Hodgson], I saw a lot of the things that he had to deal with. I was under no illusions as to the difficulty of the role. I’m really enjoying it, it’s a great challenge and to be leading your country to a World Cup is very special.

You were thrown into the deep end, firstly as interim coach, following Sam Allardyce’s departure after he had just one game in charge. Can you describe your emotions in those opening few days and weeks after your appointment? It was an unusual circumstance. Both Roy and Sam were very good to me when they were in the position so it wasn’t exactly an opportunity I was looking for. When Sam left in October, really we had three days to prepare for a camp so there wasn’t a lot of time to think. I knew I was the person best placed to step in and keep the team on track for qualification.

You had to depend on some late goals during the qualifiers. What was the standout moment for you on the road to Russia and why? I talked to the team about the importance of being a side that scores late goals, rather than conceding them – I think the best teams do that. Sometimes, in matches, especially if you’re dominating the ball, the opposition open up later, they fatigue.

I suppose the most compelling game was the one in Scotland. We were pretty much in control of the game for 80-something minutes and then within two minutes our lives have changed because of two brilliant free-kicks by Leigh Griffiths. To get the late equaliser there was most important in terms of what it meant in qualification terms.

The group looked comfortable at the end but if we’d lost a point there, it changes the dynamic of the group.

England’s Group G opponents in Russia: Tunisia: 18 June, Volgorad It’s a nice symmetry really (Southgate made his World Cup playing debut against them at France 1998). Their journey to get through the African qualifying groups is tough because the quality of the opposition is very strong, they have small groups where there’s not much margin for error. They’re an exciting team, with some players who are quite instinctive, and are capable of scoring against anyone.

Panama: 24 June, Nizhny Novgorod We’ve learned that they’re a team of incredible spirit. Their route through to qualifying is a fantastic story. You can see the energy they have. They’ve got good organisation and they’re going to be full of hope and optimism. They’re dangerous opponents for anybody.

Belgium: 28 June, Kaliningrad They won’t hold a surprise in terms of their individual strengths and weaknesses. This team has been together for a serious length of time. They had a good run at the tournament in Brazil and they have a lot of players with 50 caps and over, so that’s normally a team that’s coming to its peak.

Do you feel the level of public expectation is lower than it was before France 1998? How far do you personally think England can, or should, go at Russia 2018? I guess in ’98, we’d been in a semi-final in [Italy] 1990, and a semi-final at [UEFA EURO] 1996. So, the expectations were different. I was involved when we got to the quarter-finals in 2002, so around that period there were a lot of very experienced players who were used to being in the latter stages. Unfortunately the last couple of tournaments haven’t gone so well for us, so I think there is a slightly different feel.

We don’t want to inhibit people’s beliefs. With the players we’ve got to get the right balance of recognising there is still some learning to do, but not putting a ceiling on what they think is possible because they aren’t where they want to be yet - and we’ve got some very exciting young players.

You experienced success as England’s U-21 coach, and brought through some exciting players. With England doing so well at the U-17 and U-20 World Cup, is there a chance any of those World Cup winners could feature at Russia 2018? It’s possible, but generally speaking those guys are going to be the future. The great thing from our point of view is the experience of winning at a world level - that’s going to be great for confidence in our group. In terms of those individuals, a couple of them have been involved. Dominic Solanke made his debut, Lewis Cook came with us in the squad. Marcus Rashford is also in that year group, so it’s a strong group.

For most of them it’s going to be really interesting over the next couple of years to see them really establish themselves with their clubs. Even some of the younger ones – the U-17s – will be pushing as well.

How many places are there left to be filled in the England squad for Russia 2018? Not many. Although ours is reasonably clear in our minds, we haven’t had a chance to play together as regularly. Everybody would expect Harry Kane to be in our team for example, but of the 14 matches I’ve had as manager he’s only been available for six up to now. We haven’t had that consistency of selection.

There are definitely some places in the squad up for grabs, but not many. We’re pretty clear now, 18 months down the line, who we feel our strongest players are. We’ve got one or two injury concerns, players who haven’t played a lot of minutes this season but, beyond that, there aren’t too many decisions to make.

Southgate’s potential squad Harry Kane He’s only been available for six of my 14 games, but in those six games he’s scored seven goals. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that’s an important contribution. Probably as important as that is his mentality. He’s a guy that wants to be a world-class player, and is now putting the numbers together that have elevated him to being one of the best strikers in the world. It’s exciting for him now to challenge himself at a major tournament.

The defenders I would hope that they’re all going to be better than me! That’s my job: to help them improve and reach a level. Certainly as the team, we’d like defenders to play from the back, to be comfortable on the ball. I think it’s important at international level, especially the top teams, that you can do that.

The unity They’re a nice group to work with. They enjoy each other’s company, a lot of them played together at a younger age and they’ve been with this England team for a period of time, most of them. They get on, they sit with different people all the time at meals - it’s not cliquey with clubs, which gives you a good starting point to work from.