Southgate reflects on unforgettable 2021
Gareth Southgate discusses England's EURO 2020 and 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign after their record-breaking 2021
Whilst the disappointment may have only subsided, the immense sense of pride very much remains.
For England men’s senior team, 2021 was a year unlike any other.
With the Covid pandemic causing havoc to the footballing calendar since early 2020, the last year has seen the Three Lions complete a full World Cup qualification campaign and take part in a major tournament.
The 19 matches in less than eight months would have been enough to make 2021 remarkable in its own right but when you factor in England men’s senior team reaching their first major final in 55 years and the galvanising impact that had on a nation still suffering the effects of a global pandemic, then this year will be one which will live long in the memory.
For Gareth Southgate’s men, it started with three World Cup qualification victories in March: a home 5-0 win over San Marino, a 2-0 in Albania and a nail-biting 2-1 success over Poland at Wembley Stadium connected by EE.
With their World Cup qualification on track, Southgate and the England staff quickly switched focus to EURO 2020 preparations, which included a camp at his former home, Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium, in early June, as the Three Lions recorded 1-0 friendly wins over Austria and Romania.
In the week leading up to the start of the EUROs, England reverted to their usual base, St. George’s Park, and it was here where they would remain for the majority of the tournament.
With Covid restrictions meaning the players were unable to go home to their families, the unity of the England players at St. George’s Park proved pivotal to what would go on to be an unforgettable summer.
England would go through a EURO group stage without conceding a goal for the first time in their history, as 1-0 wins over Croatia and Czech Republic, and the goalless draw with Scotland, booked a last 16 tie with rivals Germany.
Germany have long been the team to administer English football heartbreak, with the World Cup knockout defeats in 1970, 1990 and 2010, not to mention EURO 96, meaning multiple generations of fans have had to suffer at the hands of their long-time rivals.
So when the irrepressible Raheem Sterling and captain Harry Kane scored in the final quarter of an hour on 29 June, the delight – and the relief – was felt in sitting rooms and pubs across the nation.
As the final whistle was blown, Southgate – the man who missed the crucial penalty in the semi-final defeat to Germany in 1996 – looked up to the sky in a gesture which was no doubt repeated across the country.
‘Three Lions’ and ‘Sweet Caroline’ echoed around Wembley Stadium, as Southgate and his players celebrated with the fans and the songs continued to be heard from passing cars.
The 4-0 quarter-final win over Ukraine at the Stadio Olimpico made England the first team in the tournament’s history to not concede a goal in their opening five games and it set up a semi-final with Denmark.
This time, England needed extra-time as Sterling once again proved pivotal, with Kane following up his own saved penalty to make it 2-1 and send his team through to their first final in 55 years.
Whether it was Southgate’s passionate shouting to the crowd, the players and staff celebrating with their families in the stands at Wembley Stadium or the hugs and thrown beer with family and friends at home, the emotion upon the final whistle was something many English football fans had yet to experience.
In the end, the final on Sunday 11 July was to end with penalty defeat, this time at the hands of Italy, and shameful scenes both around Wembley Stadium and on social media overshadowed what had been achieved on the pitch during the previous month.
But EURO 2020 truly captured a nation’s heart at a time when many needed it most.
Almost 31 million people watched the final in the UK, the highest viewing figures since the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997, and across the world there was an audience of 328 million.
“Goodness me, there are so many different feelings and emotions really when I think about the summer,” Southgate reflected.
“There is the forty something days away from home or the preparation that went into it, the camp up in Middlesbrough, the opening game here in Wembley and getting through the group.
“There are so many different things we experienced. It was an amazing journey.
“I suppose given time, what I reflect on is the way that as a nation we came out of the restrictions of the pandemic. So having only 20,000 at Wembley for the first game through to virtually 60,000 to 70,000 for the final and the team followed a similar journey really, as the momentum grew and everybody connected with what was going on.
“In the end of course we were only that one moment away from winning, which ultimately is a huge disappointment but there are so many amazing memories that will live with us forever.”
THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS! 😍 pic.twitter.com/ntxbbqawL6— England (@England) July 7, 2021
The impact the England team had on the nation this summer was evident when they left St. George’s Park ahead of their trip south for the Final.
Hundreds of supporters lined the roads not only in St. George’s Park but also in the streets around the national football centre, something which was then repeated near The Grove hotel in Watford, where the team stayed ahead of the Final.
Southgate said: “I think it’s difficult to think about one memory [in particular] because there are maybe things we take for granted.
“A quarter-final of a major tournament in Russia [in 2018], we beat Sweden fairly comfortably and in Rome we beat Ukraine fairly comfortably but they are quarter-finals in major tournaments and we haven’t done that in many years.
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“Beating Germany is always an enjoyable occasion and of course getting to our first final for 55 years.
“Winning the semi-final is such an important step in progress for the team, having been to two semi-finals previously.
“So there were many, many things. Driving from St. George’s Park, heading to London for the final, and seeing the people lining the streets. The same when we left The Grove for the final, people were lining the streets on the way to Wembley.
“There are a lot of things you forget about and it’s only when you get questions that you get the opportunity to reflect and you actually think about it.”
One of the few positives following the defeat to Italy was that the players only had to wait six weeks before they were back together at St. George’s Park ahead of the World Cup qualifiers.
When the players arrived back at the national football centre in late-August, they were met by a wall of emotional messages and pictures from England fans thanking them for their efforts in the summer.
Southgate said: “The period after the final was difficult for everyone really as we didn’t get closure as a group. The players needed to get on holiday before the new season so we never had a moment really after the final when everything felt united and we felt that warmth from the country that I think was there.
“I think for the players to get the letters, the feedback, the encouragement and the recognition was important and for them to see that they helped the country after a long period of lockdowns and restrictions.
Players return to St. George's Park in September
England players arrive at St. George's Park as they prepare for the World Cup qualifiers against Hungary, Andorra and Poland
“We’d been fortunate to be in the spotlight when those things were changing, and we were able to bring some great memories and bring people together when that couldn’t happen for such a long time.
“I think the journey we went on really resonated with people and they needed to be aware of it. Whatever our disappointment at the end, we had produced the best performance in 55 years and they should be proud of that.”
After suffering the heartbreak of losing the EURO 2020 final, fans and staff alike were wondering how the players would react when they travelled to Hungary for their first game since the defeat to Italy.
But the professionalism of the players shone through as they beat Hungary and Andorra 4-0, with one of the standout moments of the latter being the way the fans at Wembley Stadium cheered Bukayo Saka following the abuse the teenager had received after his miss in the penalty shootout.
The third game in less than a week ended in disappointment, as Poland secured a 1-1 draw courtesy of an injury-time goal.
But Southgate stressed: “I think to go away from home and get results like Poland is very difficult and when you saw their reaction to the equaliser at the end of the game, I think it told you how well we played as a team.
“But also we have just been the European Championship finalists so it is a big result for teams now to beat us or to get a point from us.
“We need to live with that, we need to understand we will be shot at and there are teams chasing us that will want to bring us down. That should focus the mind and make sure our mentality is at a very high level in every game we go into.”
The 1-1 home draw with Hungary in October, with followed the 5-0 away win in Andorra, meant England went into their final two games of qualification needing results.
But the Three Lions produced arguably their best 45-minute performance of the year in the first half against Albania to win 5-0 and qualification for Qatar was cemented just a few days later.
England secured their biggest competitive victory ever with the 10-0 win in San Marino, a winning margin they had not matched since 1964, and it helped land another record, with the 39 goals the most the Three Lions had ever scored in a World Cup or European Championship qualifying campaign.
Southgate said: “I think in San Marino there was never any doubt in our mind that we wouldn’t win the game, so we set our players some challenges within the game. But at the end of the game, it is still important to acknowledge qualification.
“Although in the end we made it look straight forward, it wasn’t straight forward, it was not straight forward for other big nations.
“I think it was important to praise the mentality of the players for the two matches in November, in that the performance against Albania made a complicated game look very easy and the first half was a really high level of performance.
“Then in San Marino we had the right mentality, we were clinical and we were ruthless. To play the entire 90 minutes in the right way, with good habits, I thought the players took that challenge on, young players came into the group and grasped their opportunity ¬- it’s still important the way they play in those moments.”
England have now qualified for their seventh consecutive World Cup, their longest ever run of reaching successive World Cup tournaments.
The Three Lions ended up six points and 17 goals better off than second-placed Poland in their qualification group but Southgate highlighted how it could have been so different had it not been for Harry Maguire’s 85th-minute goal back in March.
Southgate said: “In terms of the World Cup qualification, you’re not necessarily aware at the time of what are the key moments in that qualification but when you look back on the entirety, the late goal against Poland at Wembley, where we had to play in front of no fans because of Covid, was probably a pivotal moment in the group.
“It meant that when we were travelling to Budapest and Warsaw, the group had a totally different complexion. If we didn’t get that goal then maybe the way the whole group plays out is totally different.
“So the margins for qualifying or not are much tighter than people think. In the end it looks like six points and a big goal difference and perhaps quite comfortable. But we knew that goal was crucial.
“The performance in Budapest, we made a very complicated game look straightforward, that was a top-level performance and also a really good reaction from the summer because that was our first time together as a team since the summer.
“It would have been easy for the team to have a hangover or be complacent after the summer but we didn’t see that at all, so it was a really accomplished display.”
England may have fallen just short of achieving their ultimate goal of winning EURO 2020 but it proved to be a record-breaking year for the Three Lions.
In reflecting on 2021 as a whole, Southgate said: “I think that it was a unique year, in having an entire World Cup qualifying campaign and a European Championship in one year.
“We came out of the World Cup qualification as the highest goal scorers in Europe, across the year we had the best defensive record, and we got to our first final in 55 years, in a tournament we were only behind in games for nine minutes.
“There were so many strong performances to take forward and the players and staff should be incredibly proud of what they built, what they put together and what they delivered because they delivered to a high level throughout the new calendar.”