LONDON: Gareth Southgate could be entering the final weeks of his England reign unless the under-fire boss can arrest his spluttering side’s alarming decline in time for the World Cup. Southgate has two years remaining on his England contract, but there is a growing sense the World Cup could serve as his last hurrah with the Three Lions.
There has been a noticeable change in national mood towards Southgate, with the 52-year-old subjected to jeers and abuse from the stands on several occasions during England’s damaging loss of form in recent months. Having failed to win any of their last six matches, Southgate’s side will fly to Qatar on their worst run of form since 1993.
And if England fail to return home with their first major men’s international trophy since the 1966 World Cup, it would be no surprise if Southgate called it quits. The Football Association are reportedly happy for Southgate to extend his six-year reign. But, having significantly improved England’s fortunes since taking over from Sam Allardyce, the former Middlesbrough boss wouldn’t be short of options if he wanted to escape the relentless national spotlight and return to club management.
Southgate is painfully aware how unpleasant life can be as a scapegoat for major tournament failure after his penalty shoot-out miss for England in their Euro 96 semi-final defeat against Germany. That blunder and his subsequent decision to poke fun at the miss in a television commercial for pizza made Southgate persona non grata among England fans. He turned the tide in unexpected fashion, stepping up from his role as the nation’s Under-21 coach and revitalising an England team reduced to punchline status after crashing out of Euro 2016 against Iceland.
Southgate led England to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 and broke new ground by taking the Three Lions to their first major final for 55 years at Euro 2020. However, those impressive achievements were tarnished in the eyes of Southgate’s critics by England’s failure to get their hands on the trophy on either occasion. Both times, Southgate was cast as the villain as England let the lead slip through their hands.
After the waistcoat-wearing Southgate become a reluctant cult hero during the World Cup in Russia, he froze in the spotlight as Croatia recovered from Kieran Trippier’s fifth minute goal to win 2-1 in the semi-finals. An even more agonizing loss lay in wait at Wembley in the Euro final. England’s last-16 win over old foes Germany and their quarter-final demolition of Ukraine had sparked a tidal-wave of enthusiasm for Southgate’s team. For a few memorable weeks, Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ became the unofficial national anthem following its rousing renditions after England’s Euro matches at Wembley.
But the party ended with a hangover for the ages as Luke Shaw’s second-minute opener against Italy in the final was followed by a tepid display that finished in a penalty shoot-out defeat. Just as in the Croatia loss, Southgate’s caution betrayed him as he let Italy hit back without making a tangible response, either with substitutions or a change in tactics.