With the return of the Premier League and the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, the noise from England’s World Cup quarter final exit has all but died down completely.
One statistic has largely gone unnoticed, however, and it is one which should give England fans cause for optimism and a source of some achievement, although it is also one which puts England’s tournament history into stark historical perspective. Just as Germany’s group stage exit confirmed the national team’s worst ever three tournament streak, England’s last three tournament finishes under Gareth Southgate rank up there with Sir Alf Ramsey’s world champions of the 1966-1970 era as being among the very best in the history of the Three Lions.
Gareth Southgate’s first tournament in charge was the World Cup of 2018. Following the surprise journey to the semi-finals in Russia, England played with more purpose in the postponed Euro 2020 tournament, reaching the final where they were only bested on penalties by Italy. Responding to criticism of a tendency toward undue caution and selectorial conservatism as a coach, Gareth Southgate added more verve and guile in Qatar with the inclusion of the likes of Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden. The 2022 campaign ended with defeat to France at the quarter-final stage, where a late winner from Olivier Giroud and a Harry Kane missed penalty marred what was commonly acknowledged as a fine England performance.
Ahead of the game French journalist Julien Laurens felt that England’s ‘collective strength’ would be too good for France. After an unexpected victory for the French Laurens remarked:
England were the better side’ adding ‘between the 15th minute and the 75th they (England) were really on top.
With optimism about the future of the national team set-up, and only periodic grumbles about the tactics and selections of Gareth Southgate, England seem to be better poised than at any point since Sir Alf Ramsey’s great days.
Sir Alf’s golden period, of course, includes the 1966 World Cup triumph, which was followed in 1968 by a third place finish at the European Championships and then, in 1970, a quarter-final exit at the World Cup in Mexico with what many observers believe was an even better team than that which had won the World Cup four years earlier. Outside of these two time periods – that of Ramsey and the current one under Southgate – England’s tournament history is one of disappointment and underachievement.
Having not deigned to grace the World Cup with their presence until 1950, England were then eliminated in the group stages at the first attempt. Four years later in Switzerland Uruguay proved too much in the quarter-finals, while in 1958 England fell again at the first group stage. By 1962, with the tournament hosted by Chile, another quarter-final exit at the hands of South American opposition, in the form of Brazil, proved chastening. Two years prior to the 1962 World Cup the newly minted European Championship was held for the first time, although England failed to qualify for the then four-team finals, as they failed once more to qualify in 1964.
Sir Alf Ramsey’s greatest achievement, and England’s international zenith, came at home in 1966. Followed by creditable performances in 1968 and in 1970, England then embarked on a prolonged spiral into underperformance and failure to qualify for major tournaments which, among the supposedly great footballing nations, is only matched by that of Spain. In Spain’s case, though, this wrong was well and truly corrected by the 2008-2010-2012 triptych of Euro, World Cup, and Euro victories.
Failure to qualify for the 1972 European Championships was followed by the inability to make it to the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Worse followed: a qualification failure for Euro 1976 in Yugoslavia was succeeded by further misery in non-qualification for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Then, in 1980, a decade away from international tournaments ended with a first-round exit from an unlamented European Championships in Italy.
In Spain in 1982, England left the fray in the second group stage, unbeaten but lacking the real fire-power to progress. Yet another no-show for the 1984 European Championships in France, when Denmark qualified in their place, was followed by a quarter-final defeat to Diego Maradona and Argentina at Mexico ’86. England then finished bottom of a 1988 European Championship group consisting of Soviet Union, Netherlands and Ireland.
Then, in Italy in 1990, English football was effectively reborn and rebranded for the modern era and on the vapours of that tournament came the inaugural Premier League in season 1992/93. England’s 1990 semi-final defeat in Turin, and the public response to it, tapped into the deep yearning for success. The glamour and allure of the nascent Premier League, however, only succeeding in ramping up expectations for the national team.
A qualification calamity for the 1994 World Cup hit hard coming as it did after a series of poor displays at the 1992 Euros in Sweden where England were dumped at the end of the group stage. In England in 1996, after four Premier League seasons and an air of expectation, the hosting of the European Championships on home soil was a chance to show the continent what the home nation was made of. The fairytale ending did not come, of course, with those old foes Germany getting in the way of an appearance in the Wembley showpiece final. Of England’s penalty takers that night, a young Gareth Southgate, distraught at his own miss from the spot, and of his country’s inability to secure their place in the final, would witness even greater heartache a quarter of a century later as manager.
After Euro 1996 Terry Venables gave way to Glenn Hoddle as manager. A tactically adept England played in the game of the tournament at the last 16 stage at World Cup 1998 in France, although once more they came out as losers when England bowed out on penalties in Saint Etienne. Shortly after, Hoddle was replaced by Kevin Keegan and tactical sophistication and flexibility gave way to huffing and puffing and hit and hope.
A risible performance at the 2000 European Championships in Netherlands and Belgium where, once again, England failed to surmount the initial group stage, was followed by the hiring of the first non-English manager in the form of Sven Goran Eriksson. Although the Swede achieved three consecutive quarter-final appearances at major tournaments in 2002, 2004 and 2006, it is felt that he did not extract the maximum from the supposed ‘Golden Generation’ of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell. Of that sextet, Andrea Pirlo singled out Scholes, calling him “the truly great English midfield player of the generation”.
In 2008, the year two Premier League teams in Manchester United and Chelsea contested the Champions League Final in Moscow, the English national team were absent from that summer’s European Championship in Austria and Switzerland, having failed to navigate a qualifying group they were expected to surmount with relative ease. Once again, the powers that be turned towards the continent and to the Italian Fabio Capello. The Postman Pat look-alike and former Milan boss was ultimately a disappointment, being at the helm for the underwhelming 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa where England were thumped 4-1 in Bloemfontein in the last 16.
In 2012 in Poland and Ukraine under the stewardship of the much-travelled Roy Hodgson, England lasted until the last eight when they succumbed to Italy on penalties. A quarter-final exit was not without merit at that stage, although expectations were beginning to dwindle after 2010. Such a lack of expectation was not misplaced given the outcome of the two tournaments which followed, and which presaged the Southgate era. In 2014, England travelled to Brazil for the World Cup and promptly finished bottom of a group which contained Italy (themselves booted out at the group stage), Costa Rica and Uruguay. Then, in 2016 in France, a European Championship exit at the last sixteen stage to Iceland was the end for Roy Hodgson.
A palpable loss of belief and expectation across a broad swathe of the England fan base resulted after 2016 and remained in place until the arrival of a man who, as a callow young man and player in 1996, had seen the dark side of failure with England.
England’s disappointingly early return home from Qatar 2022 needs to be viewed in proper historical context. Prior to Gareth Southgate, England had hit – and invariably missed – at international tournaments, with plenty of no-shows in-between. Still, in 2023, Sir Alf Ramsey stands alone in having delivered an international trophy for England. Southgate is aware of the burden and has shouldered it admirably.
Gareth Southgate is restrained and self-aware enough to acknowledge the verbosity that has gone with English over-expectation in the past. Prior to the group stage game against the United States in Qatar he acknowledged the disparity between expectations, hype, and reality when he said:
We have to try and make history, number one. We are good at that, we are good at talking highly of ourselves as a nation on the basis of very little evidence.
For Gareth Southgate, then, as for England, there can be no going back. Having gained the respect of their continental and international peers Southgate’s England are now poised to take the next, even bigger step. Only Sir Alf Ramsey stands above Southgate as an England manager. Those quick to denigrate the current manager’s achievements and dwell on his perceived shortcomings would be well advised to look at the track record of his predecessors in the ‘impossible job’.