Kane, Sunak & Southgate Square

Are Southgate’s prospects going south?

SO, ‘it’s 1-0 to the Brazil’. England beaten by a boy. Cue bedlam. Cue pandemonium. Cue clamour for his head.

But this handwringing, this haranguing of Southgate, seems … premature. No, not premature. Disproportionate. This game wasn’t ‘all that’. England looked fragmented, sure, and unsure, um, sure. But then, by definition, they were. This was no coterie of regulars. Southgate fielded three debutants. In the absence of Harry Kane (who? Ed.), the other Harry, Maguire, was England’s highest scoring player out there on the Wembley turf.

Moreover, for all that was made of Brazil’s snotty dribble of form coming into this match, they’re still Brazil for pity’s sake. Yes, that is stating the darn obvious. But they’re a sort of precise inverse of the ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’ refrain. They’re Brazil. They’re good.

This is not to rush, headlong, Jordan Henderson-esque, to Gareth Southgate’s beleaguered, Maguire-sodden defence. Criticism of the England manager, if a tad reductive, is often accurate: he is loyal to a fault; sclerotic; reactive; naïve; too, er, quintessentially English.

But never yet have the words been uttered: ‘By a friendly shall ye know him’. It is on the battlefield, in the fog of war – ‘WAR,’ hear Roy Keane cry – that heroes are made. Indeed, as the saying goes, cometh the hour-and-a-half, cometh the man.

This means, in the more quotidian language of football, the Euros. This means Serbia, Denmark, Slovenia … and then?

England’s record at major tournaments under Southgate is … decent. Semis; Final; Quarters. But, whereas 2018 and 2021 were free hits in some sense, when expectations were featherweight, 2024 is different. That bothersome expression, ‘Golden Generation’, is being whispered – nay, screamed – into the feeds and comment sections and forums once more.

Once, in those happy, pre-social-media days, such overegging of expectations could be dismissed as a perverse tabloidian fetish. But no longer. Southgate and his roster are ever subject to the court of public opinion – and moreover, there is a growing sense that the emerging verdict is justified. Kane, Bellingham, Foden, Saka: that is no small-time forward line. These are men of vim, enough to curdle the blood of any defence. These are men who could – should? – emerge triumphant.

So, why the doommongering? Perhaps it’s this gnatty, gnawing feeling of ‘We’ve been here before’. Toothless, tactless England performances. Rabbit-in-headlights performances. These smack of early-2000s England. Remember that ‘Golden Generation’ of yesteryear? What became of them, the Gerrards and the Lampards and the Beckhams and the Scholeses?

That is, the fear is that such a fate may yet befall the Kanes and the Bellinghams and the Fodens and the Sakas. For that is the fate of England outfits since 1966: talent with nothing to show for it. Those are the ones that hurt.

(Speaking of which, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. ‘Golden Generations’ should be named after the fact, not before.)

So, the question is, of course: ‘Can Southgate learn, from past and present?’ Can he shed his intransigence when needs must; his pusillanimousness when needs must; his ingenuousness?

This remains to be seen. But these are questions for another time, a time yet to come: the Euros. Not a friendly – and not a friendly against Brazil.

So, in the meantime, for the next eleven weeks, spread the good news: at least Brazil won’t be there.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits England’s football training centre to announce EURO 28 would be coming to the UK and Ireland, meeting Harry Kane and England manager Gareth Southgate. Picture by Simon Walker – https://www.flickr.com/photos/49707497@N06/53248476300/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=139047181


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