By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – It is three years to the day that Gareth Southgate took charge of his first England game and few of the 81,000 crowd who watched his side labour to a 2-0 win over Malta at Wembley would have staked too much on him enjoying a long reign.
The job had rather fallen into the hands of the former Under 21s coach after Sam Allardyce was sacked after 67 days in charge after being embroiled in an undercover newspaper sting.
Southgate was initially installed as caretaker manager — a “safe pair of hands” to guide England through choppy waters following a humiliating exit to Iceland under former manager Roy Hodgson at the 2016 European Championship in France.
Fast forward three years and Southgate has transformed England from laughing stock to a vibrant, free-scoring side tipped as one of the favourites to win next year’s European Championship.
In 37 games in charge he has won 21, drawn nine and lost seven. More importantly he trusts young players, has encouraged an eye-pleasing and pacey style and has acted with dignity in victory and defeat. He has made England likeable again.
A man many said was “too nice” to be a success has become the most popular England manager since Terry Venables guided the national team to the semi-finals of Euro 1996 on home soil.
England have scored 19 goals in four Euro 2020 qualifiers and face the Czech Republic on Friday and Bulgaria three days later when few would expect anything other than two more emphatic wins to virtually assure their place in the finals.
A run to the World Cup semi-finals was a welcome over-achievement but the buzz that engendered has been sustained and England’s fans are fully switched back on to the national team.
Where once it attracted derision and scorn, Southgate’s side has become a source of pride.
“The fact the team have connected back with our fans is the most pleasing aspect of the last few years,” he said as he prepared his players at St. George’s Park.
“It was important to me that we played with a style that our supporters enjoy watching. We knew there were some good young players coming through, which we’ve blooded and we’ve been ranked fourth or fifth in the world for the last 12 months because of consistently good performances.”
Under Southgate the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jadon Sancho and Declan Rice have all been fast-tracked into the first team, while Chelsea’s Mason Mount made his full debut against Bulgaria last month and team mate Tammy Abraham is in line to earn his first senior cap after being called up.
With the climax of next year’s tournament being staged in England there is genuine belief that Southgate’s men can surpass their performance in Russia last year, but the manager knows that there could still be bumps in the road.
“We’ve got a much bigger emphasis on youth so there’s still a lot for us to do,” Southgate said.
“The challenges never stop. Every month we go back through the games we’ve played and review what could be better and the areas we can improve on to be considered the best team in the world. There’s a lot of work to do in that regard.
“But we feel we’re still improving. I don’t think there’s been any regression, we’ve got to make sure we continue that.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)