England's Euro stars poised to join a select group in history

Only ten Three Lions players have appeared in more than one major semi-final

England have been playing international football since 1872. More than 1,200 men have represented them and only 10 have appeared in more than one semi-final of a World Cup or a European Championship. They are so few that it is simple to name them: Stuart Pearce, David Platt and Paul Gascoigne in the 1990s, Gordon Banks, Ray Wilson, Bobby Moore, Alan Ball, Martin Peters, Bobby Charlton and Roger Hunt in the 1960s.

Now their select group should be expanded, to include Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling; perhaps Kieran Trippier, Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford too.

There are ways of illustrating what Gareth Southgate has done and how, even if the class of 1966 remain England’s lone champions, he has transformed a team and a culture.

Only Southgate and Sir Alf Ramsey have taken England to two semi-finals. Saturday’s 4-0 win over Ukraine was the first time since the 1966 final that they have scored four goals in a knockout game; the previous game against Germany represented a first knockout win against what had been the greatest tournament team of all since 1966.

England may have exported football, aiding its elevation into the global game, but Bastian Schweinsteiger has played in as many major semi-finals as them. Until now, anyway.

The BBC unearthed footage of interviews with Southgate the player from the 1990s; then a mild-mannered, eminently polite man was adamant then he did not want England to just be a quarter-final team. Should his England secure silverware, it would feel like the culmination of a life’s work. Southgate is the man who understood England’s past, learnt the lessons from it and set about constructing a team that was a repudiation of it.

He often cites the youth of his charges; most are too young to remember his missed penalty at Euro 96.

Yet constructing a side that is not burdened by history is no simple task; casting aside England’s traditional and psychological failings is easier said than done.

Part of it stems from an environment where players want to represent their country, rather than fear the consequences of it. Too many of the previous generation had far better careers at club level. That is changing: international achievers are forging memories.

Luke Shaw is one cross away from equalling the record for most assists in one European Championships, Pickford could keep more clean sheets in a tournament than any other European goalkeeper in history and Kane could win back-to-back Golden Boots. These were the sorts of things that happened to players from other countries.

It is nine years since Time Magazine’s infamous front cover of Wayne Rooney. “The tragedy of English football,” read the headline, above the sentence: “The sad saga of the world’s most disappointing team.” It is a tag England have shed by becoming a side of stature; Southgate’s symbolic axing of Rooney, the record scorer but a let-down in tournaments after Euro 2004 appears ever more significant.

Strength of decision-making has been allied with clarity of thought. Southgate has swapped personnel and formation intelligently in Euro 2020, always with reason, never to please popular opinion. He has been bold in his own way, an empathetic and thoughtful figure who has shown himself to be a man of substance. He has shown a sure touch in his footballing choices but the England team has a wider meaning and the revival led by Southgate and featuring an admirable group of people stems from an identity the country should want.

At a time when others in positions of authority have appealed to people’s worst instincts, basing careers on empty promises, lies, sloganeering and divisiveness, he has brought principle and moral leadership. And it is working.

Updated: July 5th 2021, 11:14 AM
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