England’s penalty shoot-out must be moment nation unites behind Gareth Southgate again

Gareth Southgate dancing
Southgate briefly danced in front of the travelling fans after England's dramatic victory on Saturday night - Getty Images/Jan Fromme

Enough now. Enough of the criticism. Enough of the rudeness and, as Gareth Southgate himself puts it, the “ridicule”. Not that it ever should have been like this in the first place.

When England return from Germany, when their involvement in the European Championship is over – either as losing semi-finalists, losing finalists or winners – there should be some soul-searching over the levels of anger that have been generated. Even by Southgate himself.

England are in the last four, again, of a major finals. The penalty shoot-out victory over Switzerland, the moment of sweet redemption for Bukayo Saka, Southgate dancing on the pitch is up there with the greatest episodes in England’s tournament history.

Like the shoot-out win against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup, like the last-16 triumph over Germany at the last Euros, and the run to the final, it is a big moment, an uplifting moment, a galvanising moment that Southgate has helped deliver.

Now it also must be when the nation unites behind Southgate once more in what could be an epic week for England. Although quite why they were not already united is unfathomable.

Yes, the football has largely been unconvincing. Yes, there have been questions over tactics and approach. But this should have been the backdrop. Not the noise that has angrily threatened to drown England’s campaign and so upset Southgate.

It comes with the territory, to a degree, as England manager. But the personal nature of the attacks – being called “inept”, even if it was archly framed as a question, by Gary Lineker – and the physical nature also with beer cups being thrown in Cologne despite having won the group is unacceptable and unfair.

Southgate does not deserve these personal comment, even if they has always appeared too close to the surface when his competence to do the job is discussed.

It was during the summer camp in 2022 before the last World Cup, that Southgate, again, stated, unprompted that “I won’t outstay my welcome” which took aback those who were talking to him. No-one had even asked Southgate about his future and it led to questions about why he felt the need to raise it. “But that’s how I have always felt about  it,” Southgate said. A few days later he was booed off at Molineux after a 4-0 Nations League defeat by Hungary.

While Southgate has never been under any illusions about the England job – he was in the team when Terry Venables was effectively forced out and was there, also, when Kevin Keegan dramatically quit – it was still a surprise.

“I accept that is what all my predecessors have had so why would it be any different for me?” Southgate asked. Except now he is saying it is unacceptable and rightly so. He is not a punchbag for others and he deserves more respect. Even after the shoot-out win over a tough Swiss side there was that undercurrent that England were achieving despite, not because of, the manager.

So, what now? England face the Netherlands in Dortmund on Wednesday in the semi-finals and for those complaining that they have had an easy passage to this stage of the tournament then here is a football heavyweight to defeat.

If England succeed they will head to Berlin for Sunday’s final against either Spain or France. Two more big beasts. That route to winning the Euros is tough. It always is tough.

If England lose then the fear of failure has gone. Failure was not failing to win the Euros – that was always a ridiculously high bar to set.

Instead failure was not getting through the group – such as losing all three games, as they did the last time the competition was held in Germany, in 1988. With Lineker up front (he did not score) England lost to the Republic of Ireland, the Dutch and the USSR.

Failure would have been to go out to Slovakia in the last-16 or the Swiss in the quarter-finals. That did not happen. Now England are left with the big boys. They have made the cut and hopefully that will be liberating. Not for the players but for the fans and the public and the pundits. Maybe they can now sit back and actually begin to enjoy the tournament a bit more.

So go out and win it.

England have not played well. It keeps being said and needs to be said. We know that. They have often looked like a team of ‘moments’ – such as both of Jude Bellingham’s goals and Saka’s super strike – but also a team that has deep reserves of resilience.

They have come from behind in both their knock-out ties – prior to Southgate they would have frozen as they did against Iceland – and they have confidently won a penalty shoot-out.

In fact England have only ever won four shoot-outs – from 12. And Southgate has won three of them as manager and was on the pitch for the fourth as a player (against Spain at Euro 96).

Southgate will probably go, come what may, after the Euros. His demeanour, his behaviour and what he is saying all suggest that the decision is made. Even if England win their first trophy since 1966 it looks like he will leave because he has been made to feel like he has outstayed his welcome. Maybe after eight years it is even time for a change.

Whatever happens with Southgate’s future England need to enjoy the present. There is a need to get behind him and the team. As Saka says there are (hopefully) “two more games until we can change our lives and make some history”. Right now that is all that matters.