England manager Gareth Southgate ditched his usual calm reserve and measured messages to confess he had been left feeling “like my stomach has been ripped out” by the Euro 2020 Final loss to Italy at Wembley.
Southgate has known England adversity before as a player, missing the crucial penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany at Wembley, then as a manager in the World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia in Moscow three years ago.
This felt more painful, closer to home. The missed opportunity to end 55 years without a major trophy, the chance for Southgate to join 1966 World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey as the only men to deliver such glory to the nation.
Falling short after surfing the wave of national euphoria only added to this acute sense of bitter disappointment.
Southgate, perfectly understandably, looked strained, tired and visibly dejected as he looked back on the pain of Wembley and forward towards the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
First things first. Southgate’s record as England manager stands second only to the legendary Ramsey, the taciturn mastermind who won the World Cup in 1966.
Two major tournaments have brought a semi-final and a final. Riches in comparison to the post-Ramsey past.
In England’s life before Southgate, the two preceding showpieces brought an exit in the group stage in Brazil in 2014, and then came arguably the low point in the national team’s history when England were humiliatingly bundled out of Euro 2016 in the last 16 by Iceland.
And when Southgate eventually took the final step to being England manager in November 2016 after being in charge of the under-21s, the team and the Football Association were mired in chaos after Sam Allardyce’s “blink and you’ll miss it” one-match reign.
This is the context. This is where Southgate has taken England and the upward graph of progress plus the quality of players at his disposal offers hope of a bright future and aspirations for Qatar.
England’s manager looked like the last weeks and ultimate defeat had taken a toll when he conducted a media briefing the morning after the night before and no wonder. He has taken so much pressure and responsibility on his shoulders, protecting and cajoling his players in the manner which brings unswerving loyalty in return.
When he re-gathers his energies, Southgate can reflect that his England team are moving forward and he can turn his attention to Qatar.
Southgate, and he would expect no less, must not be beyond question and there are several matters worthy of examination after the defeat against Italy, 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
And a Tweet from former England striker and BBC presenter Gary Lineker drove at the heart of what Southgate must achieve to give his side the last push from gallant losers to winners.
Lineker, who it should be stressed was totally supportive and rich in his praise for Southgate’s work, wrote: “I think going forward England have to find a way of being more attack-minded. Braver in possession and throwing more people forward. We have the forward talent to scare teams, at present we seem scared ourselves to release that talent.”
There was an ominous similarity between the defeat to Italy and that loss to Croatia in Moscow, an early goal but then momentum lost, retreating into the shell, conservative, failing to gain possession.
Italy dominated 65% possession at Wembley and, once their nerves settled after an early England onslaught, they looked by far the more accomplished side, as befits a team now on a 34-match unbeaten run.
Southgate also exercised caution with his substitutes, not using Jack Grealish until the 99th minute when England cried out for a ball carrier to at least regain some initiative.
It left him open to old accusations of conservatism. The flip side is that his tried and trusted methods took England to the final after a gap of more than 20,000 days.
And there was the penalty strategy, which involved throwing on Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford with seconds to go, stone cold into a penalty shootout with barely a touch of the ball and then both missing a penalty.
The selection that raised most eyebrows was Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, the 19-year-old who came of age in Euro 2020, taking the final penalty in the shootout knowing the hopes of a nation rested on his young shoulders.
Saka, who showed huge courage to even assume responsibility, saw his kick saved and many wondered why more senior colleagues did not step forward. Taking penalties in training cannot replicate attempting to be successful in one of England’s most crucial single moments in 55 years.
Southgate insisted it was down to him. Commendable but a very high-risk strategy that failed. Again, in his defence, he got pretty much all of his calls correct leading up to the final.
Risk is at the heart of how Southgate must move England forward now and brings us back to Lineker’s Tweet.
England have set the platform to move into the next phase of their development. Now Southgate must decide what adjustments he makes to his side to make sure Sunday was the last of the glorious failures.
Southgate has been locked into using two holding midfielders but now he might consider, as Lineker suggests, letting England off the leash.
England have the perfect starting point in two forwards of the highest class in Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. The conundrum he must solve is how to work around the unstoppable emergence of Manchester City’s Phil Foden, the creation of Grealish and maturity of Mason Mount.
West Ham’s Declan Rice was England’s outstanding performer before taking a knock against Italy and Saka has proved his talent and character. Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips has made the transition from club to international football with aplomb.
Throw in 21-year-old Sancho, about to complete a £73m move from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United and his team-mate in the Bundesliga last season Jude Bellingham, a superb talent beyond his years at just 18, and Southgate has plenty to cheer him when the clouds of Monday morning lift.
England also have a great redemption story in Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw. Free from serious injury and the cold hand of Jose Mourinho in his time at Old Trafford, he was simply magnificent at Euro 2020, the complete package of defender, creator and then scorer.
Southgate has won huge respect. He has a squad, youthful and unified, that England’s fans like as players and personalities. Now they must move from likeability to victors.
England’s manager will emerge from this pain and cautious words about not wanting to “outstay my welcome” in his role. No-one has suggested he has come anywhere near that day.
Southgate and his players now face the task of completing the most difficult leap of all – the final one that will end England’s years of hurt.