For all the sporting success England has enjoyed over the past 20 years, its men’s football team remains the one which, for most people, determines the sporting identity of the nation.
Over the past two decades there have been memorable and long-awaited World Cup wins for England teams in rugby union and cricket, and the country has, of course, played a major part in Britain’s emergence as an Olympic and Paralympic superpower.
Yet, until recently, the football team had proved stubbornly unable to follow suit. An outlier.
After reaching the semi-finals of both the 1990 World Cup and Euro ’96, England became sadly symbolic of sporting underachievement. And for many fans this period of failure was made more frustrating given it coincided with the growth and success of the Premier League. Many wondered if it may indeed be partly to blame, with the influx of overseas managers and players.
For years, every major tournament setback seemed to be a precursor to managerial resignations, Football Association reviews and deep regret. Bad luck, divided squads and failure under pressure etched into the very identity of the team.
But no longer.
Not since Gareth Southgate guided his young team to the last four of the 2018 World Cup, then proved it was no fluke by reaching the country’s first major men’s final since 1966.
Victory against Italy would complete the team’s renaissance, one that proves England can produce successful international managers after all. A team which just five years ago suffered arguably its lowest ever moment when crashing out of Euro 2016 to minnows Iceland. A collective of players who, unlike so many of those that came before, seem to relish representing their country and are inspired – not diminished – by wearing the Three Lions.
Even if England lose, the sense is that huge progress has been made. The national sporting psyche has been healed, and future tournaments can be approached with optimism and confidence, rather than trepidation.
But the importance and relevance of this team can only be understood by assessing its impact off the field too. After almost 18 months of the pandemic, England’s campaign has given many people the lift and distraction they craved, providing some healing when it was needed most.
Indicative of a new era of athlete activism, this group of diverse players also appear to have the social awareness, humility, and confidence to express themselves. By taking a knee before matches in order to highlight their support for racial equality for instance, this has meant some controversy and criticism. But backed by their manager, they have held their ground, inspiring millions in the process, and for many, proving a unifying force at a time of deep social and political division.
Sunday’s final will be one of the great collective experiences this country has shared. One that may even surpass the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.
That event was also watched by vast numbers, appeared to bring families and communities together, and made the country feel good about itself. But much has happened in the nine years since that night, and for many, this game, and this team, feels even more significant as a result.
‘Spying missions’ which helped lay the foundations
The foundations for this were arguably laid down in 1997, when former FA technical director Howard Wilkinson reshaped football’s academy system.
But 31 January 2011 was a date when the route to the Euro 2020 began.
By coincidence, Southgate joined the FA as its new director of elite development on the day building work began at the national football centre – St George’s Park.
The 330-acre site near Burton-on-Trent had been bought by the FA 10 years earlier and was Wilkinson’s brainchild, but after much delay it eventually opened in 2012.
With a hotel, 12 pitches and elite training facilities, it had everything to host all of England’s age-group teams, but it also created “a hive of information sharing”, according to Mike Rigg, the FA’s head of talent management from 2013 to 2015.
It was also where Southgate and former FA director of development Sir Trevor Brooking hatched their 10-year plan to get England playing the more attractive and successful football, which has finally borne fruit.
“It’s a facility where you cannot walk down the corridor without bumping into 20 different people from football,” he says. “It might be performance analysts or sports scientists and you would spend the whole day talking about football, whether it was in the offices, out on the pitch or in the canteen.”
Getting coaches for each team together on a regular basis was something learned on one of several “spying missions” to the Spanish FA, says Rigg.
‘Countdown clocks on the wall’
If St George’s Park gave everyone a feeling they were all heading in the same direction, in 2013 Greg Dyke then cranked the pressure up by setting England the target of reaching the Euro 2020 semi-finals and winning the 2022 World Cup.
Soon afterwards, a clock was installed in a newly built coaches’ room counting down the days to Qatar 2022.
“I think everybody thought I was nuts saying that,” says Dyke. “But today it looks a lot more hopeful. The idea was to give everybody a lift.”
It certainly focused minds, according to Rigg, who is now technical director at Burnley.
“It was nine years away at the time, but then we started analysing: how many camps would that be? What are the ages of the players that are going to be around in 2022, how much contact time can we have with these players?” he says.
“That nine years quickly became a matter of hours and the best thing that the 2022 target did was forcing change.”
Thankfully, Dyke found the cash to do that. It led to increasing the number of youth teams so the FA would see players in years between competition age groups, starting from under-15s. It meant they could have more of an influence on players who they would only see 55 days a year.
But there was still a key piece of the jigsaw to solve: getting the might of Premier League clubs onside.
Ashworth the architect and bridge-builder
The lack of trust between the FA and the Premier League was defined by players of the so-called ‘golden generation’ who would form club cliques while on England duty and, despite their talent, would never reach the heights of the current squad.
That also extended to clubs and the FA. The Premier League was at the peak of professionalism, but when on England duty, standards seemingly slipped.
“The confidence that clubs had in sending their players into England teams at all levels, wasn’t at its highest,” says Rigg, who has previously worked at Manchester City and Fulham.
“Clubs were saying that the players were coming back from international football in a worse state. They were brushing shoulders with other players, they were talking about contracts, agents were in their ears, and talking about different experiences in games and training.”
Enter Dan Ashworth, the former West Brom technical director, who took over from the departing Southgate in 2013 to become its new director of elite development. He quickly improved the relationship between clubs and the FA, which has never looked back.
“Dan said it had to change,” Rigg says. “It had to be an experience that would benefit the players’ development and not detract in any way. We attacked it from every single angle.”
Part of that was helped by being based at St George’s Park. But Ashworth also introduced a more elite staff structure including head of performance Dave Reddin, who had worked with England Rugby and the British Olympic Association, and head of player and coach development Matt Crocker was brought in from Southampton.
They all helped launch an ‘England DNA’ in 2014, which made for a consistent playing style across all age groups, which was boiled down to six key principles. It also introduced players to the values expected of them, and they were also offered more education and support.
In essence, England players were experiencing an elite performance culture – mirroring what they had at their clubs.
A 2017 ‘explosion’ in English football
Ashworth’s club background meant he came into the FA knowing two key things.
Firstly, that England players’ technical development would largely rely on what happened in clubs. But secondly, that the players were mostly in good hands and a further revolution was to come.
Playing time in first teams for English youngsters was a problem. But back at the training grounds, change was happening. Clubs had agreed to boost their youth team coaching programmes by creating a £320m Elite Player Performance Plan. Training hours were doubled and academies were graded based on performance. The FA also overhauled its coaching courses to focus on younger age groups.
At first, there was not much difference in Premier League first teams, but proof that the talent existed came when England youth teams began winning tournaments.
Ashworth, elevated to technical director, and his colleagues had prioritised success at youth level, believing that would lead to trophies for the senior team. Both Spain and Germany had both won under-19 and under-21 titles before going on to win respective World Cups in 2010 and 2014.
In 2010, there were already signs of potential when England won the under-17 European Championship, a first age-group title in 27 years. Another followed in 2014.
Then in 2017, English football exploded. The under-17s and under-20s won their respective World Cups, the under-18s won the Toulon tournament and the under-19s won the European Championship. Included in those sides were current England players Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
“Out of five age groups, four of them won trophies,” said Brooking. “You looked at those five years and thought we’ve got some great players coming through and that was the moment you knew the next few years were going to be great.”
Around the same time, Borussia Dortmund signed Sancho, with other teenagers soon following him to Germany, which Brooking said “was unheard of”. It was further recognition of a special group.
When Ashworth left his role at the FA at the start of 2019, Southgate said: “In terms of the work of a technical director, I don’t think Dan could have had a bigger impact with the plans he put in place at the FA.”
But having translated that youth team success to an unexpected semi-final at the 2018 World Cup, could Southgate take the team to the next level?
Southgate the final piece of the jigsaw
There are many people who have played a part in getting England to their first major final in 55 years, but several think Southgate has been the cornerstone.
If it hadn’t been for a newspaper sting involving previous manager Sam Allardyce, who only lasted one game in charge, perhaps Southgate may not even have got the job.
But having played his part in setting up the FA’s vision, visiting clubs and coaches up and down the country to set out what a new England looked like, and having worked with many of the players in the current squad when he returned to the FA as under-21s manager in 2013, he has been perfectly placed.
“Gareth was in the FA and at St George’s Park so when he became England manager [in 2016] he was rooted in that structure and without him I’m not sure it would have all worked,” says Dyke.
Southgate has taken the team to new levels by working hard on the team’s culture and identity. Players are now presented with their caps rather than receiving them by post, and are assigned a legacy number which shows them their position in the long list of players who have represented the Three Lions.
Over the past two years, Southgate has spoken about how the team reflect a modern Britain, and has built a bond between the team and the country.
Before Euro 2020, the 50-year-old wrote in the Players’ Tribune: “It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That last beyond the summer. That last forever.”
“Eight or nine years ago, it was Gareth who was in at seven o’clock in the morning when we’d have Monday morning meetings at St George’s Park,” says Rigg. “He’s been fundamental and central to it all.”
Brooking adds: “Gareth has a fantastic knowledge of individual players and their characters in order to get the best out of the squad.
“I hope Sunday is the one, but I guarantee that we’ll be there or thereabouts for the next 10 years.”