THE day after England’s humiliation at Euro 2016, Roy Hodgson sat blinking into the flashbulbs at a press conference in Chantilly, looking like a terrified prisoner of war.
There, the FA’s gaffe-prone chief executive Martin Glenn publicly told the manager he’d just sacked that ‘Iceland will not be your epitaph’.
For once, Glenn was spot-on. Hodgson has rehabilitated his reputation with an outstanding season at Crystal Palace.
Yet the embarrassment of that 2-1 defeat by Iceland in Nice was the epitaph for the England team’s celebrity culture.
It represented the lowest of the low for a national team which had consistently under-achieved for two decades.
Most of the tarnished ‘golden generation’ had already been swept away but Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere, probably the three most high-profile members of Hodgson’s red-faced team, have never recovered from Iceland.
Hodgson’s main mistake had been to crowbar captain Rooney into a team which functioned better without him.
He was also wrong to select Wilshere for his squad when not fully fit and to stick with Hart when the keeper was becoming increasingly butter-fingered. After Sam Allardyce’s one-match stint, Gareth Southgate arrived and heralded a quiet revolution.
Rooney, England’s all-time record scorer, was shepherded towards the exit door, respectfully yet ruthlessly.
Wilshere, never trusted by Southgate as a footballer or a bloke, has never played under his tenure — for fitness reasons and because he does not fit in with Southgate’s team ethic. And now Hart is gone too.
Personally popular with Southgate but told he simply was no longer even as good as Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland or Nick Pope.
When he was appointed to a backdrop of apathy, Southgate — relegated with Middlesbrough in his only club job — was widely regarded as a Mr Nice Guy and an FA company man.
While his decency and intelligence have shone through, nobody now considers Southgate too nice or overly loyal. Yet the ‘company man’ tag fits — in a good way.
The FA’s ‘England DNA’ initiative caused much sniggering but it looks less ridiculous each time one of the nation’s age-group team triumphs.
World Cup glory for the Under-20s and Under-17s last year were the latest in a sustained series of Young Lions successes.
The idea of a clear pathway, with age-group teams all playing similar possession-based football is proving fruitful for the kids.
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Whether that ever translates to ultimate success at senior level depends on those triumphant teenagers playing regular first-team football — and, of course, England will NOT win the World Cup in Russia.
Yet players such as Jadon Sancho and Ademola Lookman have moved to the Bundesliga to bypass the bottleneck of opportunity caused by foreign dominance of the Premier League.
It is to be hoped that others follow their lead. Top-level football and a wider world view will benefit England’s young players. If and when those players are ready to be capped at senior level, Southgate will know all about them. As well as having been England Under-21 manager, he has twice held positions where he has overseen the national age-group structure.
Barring an absolute horror show in Russia, Southgate is in place for the long haul.
In the shorter term, he seems to have discovered a way to get the best out of his limited current resources — playing three ball-playing central defenders, two speedy wing-backs, one holding midfielder and three creative players behind Harry Kane.
They have become defensively sound, comfortable on the ball — and though they have struggled for goals, there are goalscorers in the squad.
Should England beat Tunisia in their opener, there is every chance they will face a last-16 fixture against Colombia, Poland or Senegal to achieve the relative success of a quarter-final.
It should not be beyond them, but even if they slip up in the last 16, it is unlikely to be anywhere near as mortifying as Iceland. That had to be rock bottom.
For Southgate, a man with a joined-up long-term plan, the only way is up. Slowly, perhaps, but surely.
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