Whatever happens from here on in, one of England manager Gareth Southgate’s greatest achievements has been getting the notoriously critical English media on side. They are not just on side, they are his cheerleaders. Southgate has the press pack eating out of his hand, and they are refusing to bite the hand that feeds it.
Results have helped, of course, but things are very different between press and players. By meeting relatively low expectations, Southgate is surpassing them. From inviting the press to talk to all the players pre-tournament to press versus players darts tournaments, the English PR team has played a blinder and the media all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet.
When the cosy relationship with the press was threatened with a leaked team sheet before the match with Panama, Southgate moved to play down the incident and prevented a rift developing. We have even seen a headline in the Express stating, “Harry Kane and Gareth Southgate deliver England World Cup press conference masterclass”.
Has it all got a little out of hand?
The hysterical reactions to victories against modest opponents is a natural response to years of underachievement from the national team. No one can begrudge fans who haven’t seen their country reach a semifinal in a generation the chance to celebrate wildly.
The favourable draw has seen the Three Lions beat just three teams to reach the last four, none of whose players would be likely to make it into the England squad, never mind the starting XI.
Colombia were seen off on penalty kicks as their injured best player James Rodriguez watched on forlornly from the sidelines. Still, England have done what has been required with a bit of the luck that has been denied to them in the past.
The problem remains that we won’t really know how good Southgate and his England side are until they have been genuinely tested. This view has been met with scorn on social media as the English fans and press rear up against any dissenters to the cheerleading and near canonization of Southgate.
Bloggers who dare to state this fairly obvious fact have been dismissed as negative and bitter, while most of the English media have been reluctant to pick the bones out of performances, which have not always been stellar.
There have been plenty of positives and Southgate’s bold decision making has certainly been vindicated on many fronts. Leaving the egotistical and overrated Joe Hart out of the squad demonstrated a steely side that first surfaced when Wayne Rooney’s long period with the national side was put to an end.
Southgate’s commitment to integrating young players into the squad has also been a masterstroke, with their hard running proving decisive in the knockout games.
Making Harry Kane skipper has also been met with universal approval and he seems to replicate the manager’s character as someone who leads by example rather than through the tubthumping ‘leadership’ qualities of some previous captains.
Most of all, Southgate has been a breath of fresh air in how he comes across. His evident decency is a huge contrast with the bombastic and vainglorious Sam Allardyce, the man he replaced after his short, ill-fated spell.
However, this decency seems to have transformed into a cult of sorts. We have seen the humorous side with the #Southgatewould hashtag trending on Twitter and detailing all the nice things the English boss would do. There has also been hyperbole. It seemed a bit premature for Chris Sutton to describe him as “one of the greatest English managers of all time” just for beating Tunisia, Panama and Sweden.
Perhaps the bar has been set a little low in recent times, but it is certain that Glenn Hoddle, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello would have fancied their chances of reaching the last four with the draw handed to Southgate. Instead, his predecessors ran into Argentina, Brazil, Portugal and Germany before they could get to the semifinals.
They deserve to be there
Let’s be honest, since they started taking the competition seriously, no England side has ever lost in the knockout stages of the World Cup to a team as weak as the Swedes that were defeated on Saturday.
So let’s see this for what it is. As they prepare to face Croatia for a place in the final, England are on the cusp of what could be a very exciting era with a young side. They deserve to be there.
But they are meeting expectations and not surpassing them. The Colombians that England squeezed past in the last 16 were a shadow of the side that thrilled the world in Brazil four years ago.
Sweden had 33-year-old Seb Larsson in midfield, fresh from a season in the Championship with Hull City, while striker Marcus Berg plays for Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates. Losing to either of these teams would have been yet another bitter disappointment given the opportunity to make history that the draw has presented.
For people to point this out doesn’t make them bitter or ‘haters’. They are merely stating the obvious. It is difficult to imagine that any England fans would have argued with the opinion that Germany got a bit lucky back in 2002 when the knockout stages required them to get past Paraguay, the USA and South Korea in order to make the final.
If England defeat Croatia on Wednesday and go on to win against France or Belgium in the final, their greatness will no longer be in doubt and Southgate will deserve all of the plaudits that come his way.
For the moment, they are having a good tournament and England fans have every right to celebrate. However, everyone has the right to debate the relative merits of England’s squad and its manager without being branded unpatriotic or bitter.
The mainstream English media has circled the wagons and decided that they will get behind the ‘It’s coming home’ narrative, while anyone who asks the hard questions is dismissed as a killjoy.
In a game of opinions, there is no room for groupthink, however, and the truth is that England still have everything to prove.