From failure to the final - how England turned a joke into a joy

P when Gareth Southgate finally returned to England's euphoric dressing room, a little out of breath and self-conscious after celebrating with the crowd , he was asked what it meant to be an international finalist. It's an outstanding position that only one other England coach has been in. A pause ensued as Southgate seemed suddenly aware of the magnitude of the feat. "I don't know. I think it really sunk in," ....

П When Gareth Southgate finally returned to England's euphoric dressing room, a little out of breath and self-conscious after celebrating with the crowd , he was asked what it meant to be an international finalist. It's an outstanding position that only one other England coach has been in. A pause ensued as Southgate seemed suddenly aware of the magnitude of the feat.

"I don't know. I think it really sunk in," Southgate glowered. "I'm still mentally going over everything that happened in the game."

Southgate acknowledged that he kept the coach's calculation even in the moment of victory and pondered over elements that could have been improved, but many aspects of the day were deeply satisfying. There was a rehearsed move when Bukayo Saka set up Raheem Sterling for the cutback, scoring the first goal. There was a mental determination in recovering from the first goal conceded. It was a spell of ball possession that drove the game to the end in a professional manner.

All of these moments represent a significant maturation of the England squad, as well as more than a decade of work that has set the country ready for its biggest game in years.

Whatever happened on Sunday, the national team - and the national football culture - has come a real journey. It's a journey from the humiliation of Iceland 2017 to the unique glory of Wembley 2400; from failure to the final; from a team mocked as a 'joke' just a decade ago to a culture now seen as a model. One striking international match could be a showcase for a resurgent football nation.

Apart from being finalists in the tournament, England have finally become what they have always counted on in many previous failures. They have become a role model. The Germans, Spaniards and Argentines had already studied English football to see how they had developed so much talent even before this tournament.

It's a huge turnaround that comes from a number of steps. and barriers, many of which are directly linked to Southgate. Countless other figures who have been instrumental in this process punched the air on Wednesday, but it wasn't just about scoring goals, it was also about some assists.

"There were plenty of occasions when it looked like England might pull away, but holding onto the ball in the last few minutes of the game was something you don't normally see in an England team," said Huw Jennings, Fulham's academy director.

One could finally see the results of so much work and so many solutions. it was not necessarily popular at the time. This revolution was not all percent deliberate or unique to England.

As has become the standard narrative in the history of resurgent football nations, it goes back to a revolution in youth development. England are one of the richest Western European countries, industrialising the production of talent. It's what has won every World Cup and European Championship since 2010, and it's what the FA had to look out for. England's 2016 DNA plan included studies of nine major nations, six from Europe and three from South America.

It was still an important move that was only unique to England because of the 'insularity' of its football culture. . The policy is well known and still draws sighs from many of the sources mentioned for this article.

"I think we were very introspective," Jennings says. "That's certainly changed. We've become much more open to learning, and it's allowed athletic leaders to explore alternative approaches. But you can also go back to the beginnings of the academic movement and the huge influence of small football. It seems great now, but the huge range of positions that a munt or saka can play comes from that."

The reality was that England were still producing talent as illustrated by the now parodied Golden Generation. There just wasn't enough of a unifying structure, the rift was spilling over into many other areas - not least the fractured national team. By disaster 2011 Fabio Capello's team was as fragmented as the rest of the country's football system. England's teams still lacked basic ball possession - it was great when its clubs won the Champions League.

World Cup in South Africa turned into a disaster

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2010 World Cup in South Africa turned into a disaster


"When I came into the academy system, we were all heart and never gave up, but we technically fell short of our European counterparts," says Mark Allen, former Manchester City director and now at Swansea. "We would have fallen far behind if we hadn't adapted when we did."

The Premier League had become a problem. Its sheer wealth was leading to poverty in terms of youth production because clubs were increasingly looking overseas. Former chief executive Richard Scudamore decided something had to be done.

Always focused on the reputation of his rivals, but equally keen to improve the English game as a whole, Scudamore promoted the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in . The essence of this was that Premier League clubs offered huge funding of 100, forcing the competition to align with the FA and Football League for the first time in history. This was extremely important and was the most visible influence from Germany.

EPPP has gone through many drafts and drawn a lot of criticism. There was a sense that it was too bureaucratic, that it took away from 'grass roots time' and that it allowed Premier League clubs to cull talent too cheaply from those below. The net effect was still that it improved coaching, facilities and the overall infrastructure for youth development, as well as introducing a unifying philosophy for the first time. At least 17 England - a team of people went through the system.

together and make it a baseline requirement to have certain standards," says Allen.

Change was slow, but it was happening. Dan Ashworth was one of the EPPP supporting figures as West Brom's technical director and made his own changes to the FA during the year when St George's Park was completed. The low level was still ahead of the World Cup. The final step before the rise came just a few months later when Ashworth presented England's DNA document in 2016. Putting technical quality at the forefront, the plan was not without criticism or negative reaction.

"A lot of people in the game mocked England's DNA," one source at the top level of the England game. said. "I'm proud to have supported the idea as I thought it was a brilliant idea. There were details within the game model that I believed in. I knew this was the way we needed to go." It was an approach "in keeping with the best in the world. England players, first and foremost, must be trained to build a game and possess the ball like the Spaniards, which can be seen in a technical specialist like Phil Foden. They will learn the tactical approach of the Italians, as seen in Saka's positional adaptability. They will be forced to press like the Germans, as can be seen in the relentlessness of Mason Mount.

The Premier League has become an important decision rather than a problem. In 2012, when EPPP was only two of its teams could be described as playing from the back in a game with some ball possession. That was down to 17 by the end of 2020 - 26, with Pep Guardiola's 2017 arrival greatly accelerated. At least five of the greatest coaches in modern football history have worked for England in the last decade and that has only deepened the education and skill of the players.

"We had knowledge and influence from all over the world," the same source says. "It's almost like merchants arriving on ships to new countries for the first time and spreading ideas. Once you understand those ideas and the game the way our staff and players do, you have the choice to play like Spain, Italy or Germany." This does raise a wide-ranging debate about whether there can be a "national style" at all. None of these ideas are really Spanish, German or English, but are best practices for a truly globalized game. Any innovation - as we can see from the example of the Italians - comes precisely from within.

That doesn't mean the national side have their own style, which is an inevitable consequence of that. They still need structure and England have benefited from an initially unfortunate accident. It's amazing to think how different the team's story might have been if Sam Allardyce hadn't been forced out due to controversy.

Despite Southgate's best laid plans, his reign was not the best. At first he didn't even want the job. He knew all the baggage associated with seniority, cliques, pressure, circus. In fact, there is an argument that Allardyce would have been just the right arena for this circus. His approach might have worked very well in international football, but it would have been something more detached from FA design. One of the reasons for Southgate's initial reluctance was that he felt the squad might not have embraced those deeper ideas at the time.

'Bloody hell, they're gone': Southgate arrives after Iceland's 2: 1 defeat

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"'Bloody hell, they're gone': Southgate arrives after 2: 1 defeat to Iceland


"What convinced me was that the players were willing to adapt to our approach and accept what we wanted. to work," he says.

Southgate had a very clear vision of what he thought international football should be. He was head of elite development alongside Ashworth before taking over the ... job in 2012. In his spare time in Rome, the night before the match against Ukraine, Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland discussed their first match together with this team - a 1: 0 victory over Moldova at the Madejski Stadium. John Stones and Luke Shaw were the defenders, while striker Saido Berahino restricted Harry Kane to just four minutes off the bench with Eric Dyer and Jesse Lingard sitting out the entire game.

For the descendants of the starting XI were Jack Butland, Stones, Shaw, Andre Wisdom, Michael Keane, James Ward-Prowse, Nathan Chalobah, Nathan Redmond, Tom Carroll, Wilf Zaha and Berahino. It wasn't exactly a 2400 team, but a good few of them played adult football under Southgate, and Jennings thinks culture matters more.

"If you judge world and European championships winners, you can often trace them back to tournament success at youth level," states Jennings. "Even though players sometimes change, there is a mindset and understanding of how to win tournaments." What has been seen in the victories of 2018 - in sub - 21 European Championships as well as Youth Championships - and below - World Championships - where all of Foden, Mt , Rhys James, Jaydon Sancho, Dean Henderson and Dominic Calvert-Levin have won their first international medals.

Southgate proved to be quite astute after that first match against Moldova. "There's a lot of talk now about what English players can and can't do in terms of ball possession and passing," he said at the time. "There are quite a lot of talented players coming through, but talent alone won't be enough." A plan was required. By the time Southgate took over, he was clear on how he wanted to maximize that talent. His background ensured that - almost by accident - there was finally a match between the profile of England's national team manager and the structure he oversaw.

Southgate had to do something more direct at first, it was all leading the way. That was the collective psychology of the team. It created a fragmented and politicised squad that just couldn't cope with the pressure being created around them. Nadir was Iceland. Hollande watched the game on holiday and recalls thinking "damn, they're gone". Both he and Southgate felt it was an absolute example of an athletic team going 'cold'.

Raheem Sterling successfully completes a "sheep dish" at the top of the hill. marines' endurance course, Southgate training camp for the squad in June 2018

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Raheem Sterling has successfully completed a 'sheep dip' at the Marine Corps Endurance Course, Southgate Training Camp, organised for the squad in June 2018


They decided to do their own research to find out what went wrong and how it might have been addressed. The atmosphere around the team was toxic. The players just didn't like it. More stories of players from bigger clubs sitting at separate tables in the dining area. A group of one just didn't socialize with the rest of the team, other than eating or practicing, and just retired to their rooms during downtime. It was a suspicious impression that was heightened by the oppressive anticipation. "If we lose, it will be the end of the world", John Terry said at Wembley on Wednesday. One source goes much further. "A lot of them thought they were fucking each other".

It couldn't be more different from the current one. Word from St. George's Park is that guys like Foden like it because they see it as "a retreat with their mates." There really is a great spirit here. That's why there was no disagreement or resentment about the team selection. "They've all embraced the role, they've all bought into what we do as a group," Southgate said. "They have a huge respect for each other, and it created a culture and a feeling amongst the group that there's a real closeness and excitement for each other, and now they're all in the final."

The older players, meanwhile, are content in their role as "tribal elders," stepping back because they know the younger talent is the "stars." There is no jealousy or suspicion. Mockery about those who watch. Love Island of those who don't.

More serious incidents played their part. The racism suffered by many players in Montenegro and Bulgaria was grotesque, but the way everyone reacted and supported each other deepened the bonds. Some particularly affected people were impressed and touched by the righteous support of others, especially the likes of Henderson and Tyrone Mings. There was a sense of teammates supporting each other.

"We've had some really open conversations as a group where people have gotten to know each other a little bit better, gotten to know each other's feelings. Respect their views," Southgate said. The unyielding stance while bending his knee only reinforced that. It was all so far from what Southgate inherited in 2017.

The manager first cultivated this atmosphere by turning his attention to other sports and essentially introducing New Zealand rugby's "no crap" policy. The team must have a code of conduct. Players deemed disruptive or divisive were expelled. That's why Southgate was particularly strong on individual cases of indiscipline, such as those involving potential club rivalries. Relations with the media have been radically improved, so that the press are not just seen as a body exerting notorious pressure, but a concerted attempt has been made to deal with the very reaction to any pressure.

During the first long international break, Southgate took the team to a military boot camp with the Marines. The staff wanted to condition clearer thinking under pressure. One exercise was to go through a dark tube under waist-deep water. There were Marines on either side, so it was perfectly safe, but few of the players felt comfortable. They just had to get their way. The idea was to link the memories of this to football so that any mishaps didn't seem so serious and the players could deal with them rationally.

That in itself is not the case. going to win your football matches, but the results of the wider process could be seen in that first half against Denmark. Many might have expected England to "freeze up" after that first real setback in the tournament when they conceded their first goal. Instead, they only gained momentum, showing much more than determination. Within minutes, Saka, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling combined to make moves that were both "automatic", unique to England, but also reminiscent of the many goals scored by Guardiola against Manchester City.

Southgate could implement what Dan Ashworth (right) wanted

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Southgate could implement what Dan Ashworth (right) wanted

(FA / Getty)

That's the depth of development clarified. "All the changes over the last eight to 11 years are now coming to fruition," Allen says. "You start to see that tactical or technical understanding come home, how they create those overloads, how they go from three to four from behind so easily."

If one remaining criticism is that England are not producing enough of this given their talent, one consideration is that they are still in development. There is a sense in some quarters that the team is ahead of schedule and that Southgate is building them step by step until they are a truly finished and integrated side.

"These players are still overcoming barriers," the manager said Tuesday, and some barriers still remain. In the end, the game against Denmark was only possible after something simpler, much earlier. It was simply winning an elimination match. That was the main goal Southgate set for the World Cup. "That was our first goal. That's where we saw the benchmark."

This was aided by a scientific approach to penalties, as well as psychology, as England accomplished this task against Colombia. Reaching the semi-finals in Russia prompted another extensive study: how to win the tournament. Portugal 2017 and France 2020 were seen as models for England. Southgate drew many lessons from that study, explaining why certain decisions were made. The players then learned from their own experiences.

England went through the group stages comfortably but relatively subdued, although the idea was to reserve energy for the latter stages. That's why Kane was switched off in certain minutes in the opening games and decisions were made with forensic evidence on the players. "The physical preparation in England is very, very good compared to other countries," Jennings said. "It's not because of the mindset. It's because of the programme. You could see it in the tension on Wednesday."

There is fair criticism that Southgate's whole approach can seem programmed, from the reasons for the selections to the football. As one source says, "it's as if he's trying to win the tournament by appealing to management. You could even call it Ikea's Euro However, it is possible that England 2400 itself could serve as a blueprint for winning the tournament - or at least going the distance regularly.

Even the pre-tournament debate about Southgate's 'best XI' now seems outdated. He solved the problem of having too much attacking talent by simply using all that talent at different moments, adapted to specific tactical challenges.

It was what was conventionally a defensive 3- 4: 3 eventually outshot Germany, which was seen as a "transformative moment" for the team. It brought redemption to Ukraine and resilience against Denmark.

The good spirit in the camp keeps things fresh. The atmosphere at Wembley caused an emotional wave.

Many players, and indeed Southgate himself, have described the team singing "Sweet Caroline" after Denmark as one of the greatest moments. of their career. The greatest moment with England may yet await. They simply face what is by far the biggest challenge of the tournament, a level above anything they have faced so far.

England players celebrate after their victory over him. Denmark

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England players celebrate victory over Denmark

(The FA / Getty)

It is quite possible that Italy will become a model of how England still make some mistakes. . Italians have followed a nearly identical path as a previously closed football culture has opened up and experienced a revolution, but so far the result has been much more expansive football. Perhaps they will show England how it is really done. If so, it will be just one final step. So much has already been done.

"Another positive thing is that these young players are getting more positive and enjoyable experiences with England," Southgate said. "They get to feel what it's like to be in an England shirt and have fun, win matches and have a positive relationship with the fans. It's so important for the next generation."

Many of the coaches involved believe it's not over yet. "It's probably the start of the British cycle in a lot of ways," says Allen. "We have a lot of fans from other countries," Jennings says. "Regardless of what happens on Sunday, the current movement is an expression that says there's an English way that has a lot of merit to it."

As for football coming home, In Euro 2021, England are once again one of the great homes of the game. It's where many others look for inspiration.

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