Can England win Euro 2020 with kids? Gareth Southgate is hoping to lift the trophy with the youngest and lowest capped squad at the tournament but this group is free of burdens and doubts from previous failures
- Gareth Southgate will always carry the memories of England’s Euro 1996 failure
- But many of his England players weren’t born then and come with fresh minds
- The Three Lions have youngest and lowest capped squad ahead of Euro 2020
- Southgate urges players to create their own stories as they bid to win the trophy
- Find out the latest Euro 2020 news including fixtures, live action and results here.
When Gareth Southgate decided to tell the full story of the pain and humiliation of missing that penalty at Euro 96, it took some persuading to get him to share it.
Southgate was England Under-21 manager at the time and essentially on a final notice, having failed at the Under-21 European Championship in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2015.
Desperately searching for an added edge to his management, he enlisted the help of Jonny Zneimer, a performance psychologist who worked with Olympic swimming champion Adrian Moorhouse’s Lane 4 consultancy. Southgate was looking for a way to connect and, speaking with Zneimer, slowly became convinced of the need to share his own story.
Gareth Southgate has not hidden away from his pain and humiliation at the 1996 Euros
That said, he was reluctant. What would a bunch of teens and twenty-year-olds born in the mid-1990s make of a middle-aged man recounting his woes from back in the day? As it turned out, many who were in that squad and were present at Southgate’s presentation remember it as something of a turning point.
That England Under-21 group had some familiar names: Jordan Pickford, Ben Chilwell, Jack Grealish and James Ward-Prowse were there. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who would play for Southgate in Russia 2018, was too. Nathan Redmond and Calum Chambers were other alumni.
Southgate shared it all: rejection as a youngster at Southampton, coming through at Crystal Palace, missing the penalty for England, being sacked at Middlesbrough. The unwritten footballer’s code — never to go here for fear of mickey-taking and disrespect — was wilfully ignored.
He has shared his experiences with England’s youngsters while in charge of the Under-21 side
According to Zneimer, you could feel the shift in the room. ‘There was a dramatic sense of engagement with players in a different way. He had moved away from being mentor to being on their level. It creates a different kind of bond.’
‘I remember that talk very clearly,’ said Middlesbrough’s Duncan Watmore. ‘He told his story, about the penalty and how it felt. I think he said it still lives with him. It’s hard to escape something that big. He was very open and transparent and I greatly respected it. I was two in 1996 so I didn’t remember it! But I knew about England penalty misses, how close we got and stuff like that. I knew what a big story it was.
‘We were 19, 20 but a lot were playing in the Premier League so we know how much scrutiny you get, how high-profile it is. You can times that by 10 if you put it in the context of the national team at a major tournament. It resonated. I could feel how powerful that moment could have been, could stay with someone and hurt them. That’s where a lot of respect came that got us all to open up.’
And Southgate seemed to have connected with them. That summer they would win the Under-21 Toulon tournament. Not the World Cup for sure, but for Southgate a personal redemption, which increased his credibility at the FA and would lead to him being asked to take over the senior team.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he disarmed the fear of failure and freed players of inhibitions
Perhaps more importantly he had found a new way to coach, a method which would be used to such effect when leading the senior team to the 2018 World Cup. By demonstrating vulnerability, conceding his ‘faults’, he disarmed the fear of failure. After all, Southgate’s humbling in 1996 is one of the worst performance scenarios footballers can face.
It worked in Toulon in 2016 and then in Russia in 2018, where Southgate seemed to free England players from their inhibitions. Now he has the challenge of bonding a squad together in a few days for what is virtually a home tournament, but working under Covid restrictions.
More than any other nation at the delayed Euros, England are the Gen Z squad: Jude Bellingham is 17, Mason Greenwood is 19, Bukayo Saka is 20, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Reece James are 21, Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Trent Alexander-Arnold are 22. Greenwood and Saka aside, these aren’t players on the margins or here for the ride.
England will go into Euro 2020 this summer with the youngest and lowest capped squad
Most of the players weren’t alive for England’s early misery – they come free of any burdens
Stars like Phil Foden aren’t here for the ride, they are likely to make Southgate’s starting XI
These are players likely to start, though Alexander-Arnold is an odd case, world class and yet not sure of his place in the squad. But if he makes the cut for the 26 on Tuesday, don’t bet against him making the final XI.
These are players born between 1998 and 2003. It’s not just that they weren’t alive for Southgate’s iconic penalty miss. Most of them weren’t alive when England limped out against Brazil in Sapporo in 2002; nor will they have any memory of the penalty shoot-out woes of Euro 2004.
They will, though, remember England being eliminated from the 2014 World Cup after just two games. And Iceland 2016 will for ever be etched on the heart of any England fan or player. But they will also have been captivated watching their older colleagues knock out Colombia on penalties and reach the 2018 World Cup semis.
Southgate’s trick has always been to convince England players that they could write their own stories and to see themselves as superheroes if they wished. ‘It’s an opportunity,’ said Southgate, of the coming tournament. ‘We can be the first. We’ve never got to a European Championship final.
For Southgate, a generation full and talent and clear minds is a gift ahead of the tournament
‘We’ve only been to one semi-final. We have a great opportunity to bring happiness and enjoyment to people. That’s one of the beauties of being involved with the national team. These players don’t need to worry about 1996. Most of them weren’t born… God, that’s depressing!’
It’s also the point. With this generation he doesn’t now even have to remove the baggage of history. England are young, fresh with minds open to the possibility of winning.
Maybe youthful idealism will be snuffed out in a last-16 match against a formidable Portugal side or extinguished by the mighty French in a quarter-final. But this generation comes free of burdens and doubts.
For Southgate, an expert moulder of minds, that is a gift. That penalty miss may yet play its part in creating something special this summer. But it no longer has to be the definitive England experience.
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