Respect. A deep admiration for someone or something due to their abilities, qualities or achievements. Respect is thrust into our face from birth. Respect your elders, respect authority, respect each other.
Respect is for those who deserve it not those who demand it. Respect is earned not given.
If there’s one thing that Gareth Southgate and his band of fine young gentlemen will leave the European Championships with on Sunday night is respect.
There isn’t a member of the squad that hasn’t faced intense public scrutiny, tabloid pressure or outright abuse and racism. Southgate himself has been labelled a patsy, an FA “Yes Man” that can’t cut the mustard alongside the best on the international stage, a spineless conservative fraud that is holding back talented attackers.
As Gareth Southgate becomes the first man to lead England into a major final since Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966, with Harry Kane equalling Gary Lineker for goals scored at international tournaments and with every single member of this squad about to be etched into history it’s time to put some respect on their names.
They’ve certainly earned it for their off the pitch efforts. There has been hundreds of articles, podcasts and social media posts championing the work this squad has done to tackle social justice issues.
They have been rightly commended for aiding in fights against child hunger, racism and inequality. This side has multiple players who’ve received an MBE for their charitable and social work.
There hasn’t been a better man in England’s green and pleasant lands than Gareth Southgate to address the nation on his team’s decision to take the knee amidst calls that millionaire twenty-somethings were supporting Marxism.
His open letter in the Players Tribune has been part of a great effort to reshape patriotism and foster a feeling of a “modern England” that has unified the nation and highlighted the diversity and spirit that makes this country stand tall.
The players are likeable, intelligent young men that speak openly and passionately about what it means to play for their country, in stark contrast to the closed off, inaccessible celebrity culture of the “Golden Generation”. There aren’t major scandals and stories of discontent between players based on club loyalties.
These lads are mates, most of whom have grown up together through the youth ranks. Following the quarter-final victory against Ukraine, there was a clip of Jordan Henderson and Jadon Sancho joking outside the team bus before Hendo grabbed Man United’s new signing in a headlock.
You can’t quite imagine Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney sharing that same bond.
That spirit, that sense of being part of something greater than themselves has been integral to England’s progress through the tournament. It’s what has created such a feel good factor round the team and country. It’s helped England feel more like a club side than ever before because people can truly identify with these men and care about them.
England haven’t simply got here by riding a tidal wave of good feeling on their inflatable unicorns though. England are a terrifyingly talented team of footballers with a manager that perfectly understands the international football landscape and maybe it’s time we all paid that some respect too.
Gareth Southgate has made a career out of proving people wrong and nowhere has that been more evident than at this tournament.
From selecting Kieran Trippier at left-back instead of Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell against Croatia to nullify Šime Vrsaljko, sticking with Raheem Sterling after his struggle for form at Man City, opting for two “defensive” midfielders in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, reverting to a back 3 against Germany, keeping Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden on a leash until absolutely necessary – Gareth Southgate has been vindicated.
Keeping his squad fresh by rotating and managing on a game-by-game basis instead of sticking with a single winning formula has meant that he was able to unleash Jadon Sancho against a Ukraine side that were depleted from a gruelling 120 minutes against Sweden.
It meant that as extra-time came last night at Wembley and millions across the country watched through their fingers as that chilling sensation of déjà vu threatened to shatter everyone’s nerves, Southgate was the calmest man in England.
With Denmark on the ropes and emotionally drained, Southgate was able to call upon Manchester City’s Golden Boy, with Foden raring to go. He could have thrown Sancho on as well or Marcus Rashford, with Grealish already on the pitch. It really was a question of when and not if England would score.
That Southgate can call upon such options is down to the fantastic work the national setup and the FA have done in transforming how footballers are developed in this country, as well as the many brilliant coaches in the Premier League and EFL.
Grealish, Foden, Sancho and Saka are a magical new breed that make you realise that professional football and your weekly 5 aside might as well be two separate sports.
The England DNA is paying off at the highest level. When things went wrong for the “Golden Generation”, Sven-Göran Eriksson would usually have to turn to Darius Vassell, Kieron Dyer and Aaron Lennon.
Gareth Southgate, for everything people want to say about his lack of experience at club level and his almost accidental appointment, understands international football in a way that others do not.
With so little time and the changing form and fitness of players, there isn’t the same ability to craft a team like Pep Guardiola has at City or Klopp has at Liverpool. Roberto Martinez once said that “at club level you play 60 games in a season which you cannot repeat with only one game when you get together at international level”.
There isn’t the opportunity to spend £50 million when one of your fullbacks is injured which is why he has his trusted lieutenants, those that he can rely on to perform no matter what is going on domestically.
International football is chaos and Southgate is doing his best to contain that, in the same way Portugal and France have in winning the previous two major tournaments.
It isn’t just Southgate proving people wrong though. His team are taking every ounce of criticism and repeatedly volleying it over the Wembley Arch.
Moments before Mikkel Damsgaard’s beautiful free kick, Jordan Pickford broke Gordon Banks’s record of 720 minutes without conceding for England. It was only fitting that Pickford’s run of clean sheets could only be broken by a moment of magic. The Everton stopper is on course to win the Golden Gloves award and is back to being England’s favourite raver.
However, that wasn’t the case a few months ago. A wobbly first-half of the Premier League season led to loud calls for Nick Pope to replace him as Number 1 and his reckless challenge that ended Virgil Van Dijk’s campaign led to death threats from Liverpool supporters. There were jokes about his “T-Rex” arms and Pope played in all 3 of the World Cup Qualifiers in March.
There was no doubt on Southgate’s end that Pickford would be guarding the net during the tournament though, even after Pope’s knee surgery ruled him out. Pickford’s ability with his feet is well documented and was particularly important against Germany and in beating Denmark’s press last night.
Sure there’s a few nervy moments but every keeper has them. If they were *that* good with their feet, they wouldn’t be playing in goal.
What doesn’t receive enough credit is Pickford’s maturation into a calming presence on the backline, while still retaining his skills as a shot-stopper and penalty box commander. He’s got an adult haircut now and he’s not the overly-emotional screaming banshee of 2018.
That grasp on his emotional handle, something that plagued Joe Hart later in his national team career, saw Pickford outperform Eduoard Mendy, Bernd Leno, Rui Patricio, David De Gea and Kasper Schmeichel last season in terms of save percentage (71.1%) and he conceded less goals (39) than Hugo Lloris and Emi Martinez. Jordan Pickford is a very good goalkeeper and the indisputable England Number 1.
In front of Pickford is a defence that enters a European Championship final without conceding from open play. That is absurd given that England’s defence was highlighted as their Achilles Heel in the lead up to the tournament.
At the heart of it is Harry Maguire, a man that will wake up this morning feeling redeemed. His last two games against Denmark couldn’t have gone more differently.
In October, Maguire was sent off at Wembley as the Danes won 1-0, at a time when he’d become a national laughing stock. His arrest in Mykonos tied to the pressure of his price tag looked to have broken him. That performance against Denmark followed a calamitous afternoon at Old Trafford when United were beaten 6-1 by Spurs with Maguire particularly culpable for a number of goals.
The rebuilding of his reputation since is a testament to the man that Jamie Carragher claimed has outperformed Rio Ferdinand and John Terry in an England shirt.
When he does make the occasional mistake they’re far more pronounced because of his size and speed but Maguire was quietly one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League last season, high up the charts for interceptions and clearances and has been at his best in the Euros.
His knack for bringing the ball out of defence has been a secret weapon for Southgate and it’s not a coincidence that England have looked better going forward since his return to the team.
“Colossal” and “immovable” have been used to describe his efforts this summer but frankly, Harry Maguire has just been everything that you’d expect from the captain of Manchester United. They don’t give that armband out in a box of Cheerios.
He has formed a rock solid partnership with John Stones, another who has often been an unfortunate victim to the transfer fee paid by his club for him.
The Barnsley born defender has made high-profile mistakes for City over the years when passing out from the back and looked to be out of favour at the Etihad but was able to supplant Aymeric Laporte to partner Ruben Dias and was named in the Premier League Team of the Year.
Even then, the “carried by Dias” comments came as the Portuguese star was named Player of the Year. It wasn’t Stones who was exposed by Germany, though.
Luke Shaw has been heralded as a revelation in this tournament yet this new version of Shawberto Carlos won’t come as a surprise to anybody that watched United this season. Battered, bruised and cast aside by Jose Mourinho, Shaw has flourished into the best left-back in the Premier League under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, fulfilling the potential he showed in his teenage years.
Only Steven Zuber has more assists at the Euros (4 to Shaw’s 3), with Shaw developing a stunning partnership with Raheem Sterling down the left hand side, while his one v one defending is world class.
One of the main criticisms of Gareth Southgate is that he has “favourites” and that came to the forefront when he named four right-backs in his original squad with Kieran Trippier joining Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James.
To many, it felt like he was shoehorning Trippier into the squad, almost as if Trippier hadn’t just come off a stellar season where he helped Atlético Madrid break an El Clásico duopoly on the La Liga title.
The 30-year-old played almost every minute he was eligible for under Diego Simeone in the same types of systems Southgate deploys and his experience has been key. Kyle Walker has been crucial as well with his pace and versatility along the backline allowing Southgate to flip between a back 4 and the back 3/5.
After a bad opening game, Walker’s grown into the tournament and was arguably the best player on the pitch in the semi-final.
The midfield duo of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips (who apparently offered nothing before June started) have been far better than anyone could have predicted. While it would have been easy for Southgate to satisfy public demand by including as many of his attacking options as possible and go all guns blazing, an overloaded team would have been overrun and eliminated by now.
The safety net of Rice and Phillips, snapping and tracking the opposition, allows the attacking players on the pitch more licence to roam, as they snuff out counterattacks.
Rice will be captain of England one day and is going to move for silly money either this summer or next while Phillips has seen his stock rise more than any other England player over the course of the past few weeks.
Rice’s best mate Mason Mount was also under fire previously, in the autumn internationals, as people worried that it was a straight choice between him and Grealish to make the squad. While he isn’t as sexy and eye catching as Grealish or Foden, Mount is a sensational footballer.
His movement, intelligence and ability to create space for others has been pivotal to England and Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel’s men would not have lifted the Champions League trophy without him.
And without Raheem Shaquille Sterling MBE, many of us would not be about to experience the first England final appearance in our lifetimes. It took until the 86th minute in the Round of 16 for anyone else other than Sterling to score for England and his direct running and understanding with Shaw has sliced open teams.
While he did struggle for City, especially in the second half of the season, it would have been ludicrous to not start him here. That’s not with the benefit of hindsight. That’s because after waiting three years in between his second and third goal for England, he’s scored 15 in his last 22 games. He’s been involved in over 200 goals since joining City in 2015.
The story of Pep Guardiola painting a white spot for Sterling to stand on in training when he wasn’t sure where to position himself is usually used to eulogise about Guardiola’s mastery but it shows how important Raheem is. He is a headline act in one of the best sides in British history.
Sterling’s connection with Harry Kane lifts the England skipper as well. So many times over the years we’ve bemoaned the fact that our superstars can’t replicate their club form for the Three Lions but when Sterling and Kane play together, they can.
The inside runs and darts behind that Sterling makes gives Kane the same outlet and comfort that he gets from Heung-Min Son at Tottenham and the 6 assists Sterling has supplied the Spurs forward during their time together is the most for England in modern history.
Then there’s Captain Kane himself. A superstar striker that has equalled Gary Lineker’s tally at tournaments, who hasn’t scored less than 20 goals a season since 2013 and who enters the “prime of his career” at 27 baring down on Wayne Rooney and Alan Shearers international and domestic goalscoring records.
A superstar on talent alone. There’s no silly haircuts, brand deals or shenanigans. You’d struggle to name his partner and that’s a good thing.
Nothing rings truer for Harry Kane’s tournament than the old adage form is temporary, class is permanent. If he was a shadow of himself in the group stages and until he nodded in against Germany, he’s shone like a supernova since.
Kane haunts the dreams of opposition defenders. He drops deep, he pulls people around and he may be the best finisher this little island has ever produced. His pass for Saka in the lead up to Simon Kjaer’s own goal last night is why he doesn’t “just get in the box”.
He may have got lucky that last night’s penalty rebounded right to his feet but he’ll always be the man that fired England to the final of the Euros with a goal that shook Wembley to it’s core.
The jokes about his speech are old, boring and pathetic. His amazement at the Wembley crowd belting out Sweet Caroline after the Germany win, pausing to take in the raw emotion and passion, hit harder than any cliché soundbites.
The detractors will point to an “easy” path to the final. They’ll say that we beat a vulnerable Germany. That’s the same Germany who blasted pre-tournament favourites Portugal away ten days prior and it was Southgate’s brave selections that pinned them back and stopped them exploiting an overload on the flanks.
They’ll say that England have benefited from only travelling to Rome and playing the rest of their games at Wembley. They have but if England beat Italy on Sunday, Harry Kane will not lift a different trophy above his head because things have gone in our favour.
England stand on the edge of glory with the most talented squad that we’ve ever assembled, with our most successful manager since Sir Alf on the touchline.
The game against Italy will be the toughest test of this side since Southgate took over but Spain showed the blueprint to beating Italy. They didn’t like Dani Olmo dropping deep, their full backs don’t enjoy being attacked with pace and their midfield trio does not like chasing the ball. They’re all things that England excel at.
If the worst happens and England lose on Sunday, this does not become a bad team overnight just as they haven’t become a good team out of nowhere. There must be no reframing of history, no jokes or sneers. No forgetting how this team managed to united a nation during one of its darkest times and most politically and socially fractious of eras.
Every single player in this squad from Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White who were drafted in due to injuries to Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling has earned our respect and adulation this summer. Gareth Southgate has achieved redemption.
Now, it’s time for glory, for immortality. It’s time to really bring football home. Gentlemen, the whole of England is with you.
Photo Credits: England/The FA