Gareth Southgate has had bad nights at major tournaments before – this feels different

Gareth Southgate has had bad nights at major tournaments before – this feels different
Gareth Southgate was dejected after England's draw with Denmark - Getty Images/Ryan Pierse

Please tick off the following from your England summer bingo cards: Controversial new kit, disjointed warm-up friendlies, anointing a youngster, turning on that youngster, the phrase “we’re crying out for [insert omitted player here]”, starting line-up disagreements, a dreadful draw in the second group-stage game. Boy oh boy, a dreadful draw in the second group-stage game.

England’s fortunate 1-1 with Denmark immediately took its position alongside the unholy goalless trinity vs the United States, Scotland, and Algeria in the tournaments of 2022, 2021 and 2010 respectively. Two of those tournaments ended with a narrow defeat by the most consistent international team of the past decade and a final lost on penalties. No need to revisit South Africa 2010.

Which is to say a result like Thursday’s can be swept away by better showings in the more important games to come. England’s objective in Germany, as at any other tournament, is to qualify from the group. Do not lose any games and you will almost always achieve this. Gareth Southgate knows this.

Yet every England fan knows his side are capable of better and there is an obscene emotional investment in every tournament game. Hence headlines such as “Stars and Tripe” on the ever-diplomatic Daily Star after the US draw in Qatar. “There was a concerning lack of urgency when attempting to win back possession,” wrote this newspaper after the Scotland game. Satisfying when you can copy and paste your own words from three years ago and find nothing has changed.

Momentum matters in tournaments. In Qatar, England had thrashed Iran with unexpected ease. Before Scotland, there was a disciplined performance to take three points from Croatia, the same team who had undone the first summer of Southgate. Fun. Progress. We await signs of both at this Euros.

I watched the Denmark game from Dusseldorf, which is the base for hundreds of British fans. Despite the unconvincing win against Serbia, the mood in the fanzone 10 minutes before kick-off could not have been jollier. It was like the pint before boarding a plane for an overseas stag do.

Five minutes into the second half, with England looking as if they had played 115, it was more like the morning after. You feel sluggish and despondent but still have to go bowling, spend an hour sweating inside a Zorb ball and pedal about on the bicycle which is also a pub. “What do you reckon?” I asked a man in his twenties who had been belting out Chelsea Dagger just before kick-off. “Don’t” was his exasperated reply.

Gareth Southgate has had bad nights at major tournaments before, but this feels different
England fans were frustrated by the team's performance - PA/Lucy North

It is a special occasion in one way or another for so many who have come to Germany. Landmark birthdays, father and son dream-fulfilment, university reunions. Some do not need the excuse, there is a reckless thrill in spending your money and holiday allowance on travelling to a tournament. It takes a lot to ruin that mood; no team will do it more reliably than England.

This is nothing new but there was a greater sense of despair on Thursday. It made the Denmark result feel closer to the grim portent of Algeria in 2010 than the aberrations against US and Scotland. You could see Southgate’s point about lacking a natural replacement for “a Kalvin Phillips”, and please note his determiner “a” there, which has immediately been edited out in the retelling. He meant, I think, that England lack “a Phillips type” rather than Phillips himself. It was still odd to bring up a player who has rightly been overlooked for this squad.

Southgate has generated such goodwill that most pundits have been reluctant to criticise but that old order also looks to be crumbling. “Gareth, at the minute, is not getting the best out of the England players,” Alan Shearer said. “You’d probably have to put this on Gareth,” Roy Keane said. Some stronger language is being used on WhatsApp and social media.

Partly, Southgate is a victim of his own success. These sorts of dispiriting nights rankle more now because they have become the exception. There have been many glorious moments in his reign: penalties against Colombia in 2018, Germany and Ukraine in 2021, Iran, Wales and Senegal in Qatar. Mostly, there has been a base level of competence and assurance, even when things have not gone to plan. Generally, England have looked like we always wanted them to, like one of the best teams in the world.

We must now see the bright side because what other choice do we have? Almost every tournament winner has one stinker of a game. England and Southgate have come back from lower points where the mood seemed to have turned decisively, especially the 0-4 against Hungary at Molineux. But you are having to squint ever more tightly at Southgate’s England to see them as tournament winners.

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