The wild finale to the death row matches on Wednesday once again turned the spotlight on the old elephant in Gareth Southgate’s room, that episode that always hangs over the England coach but is tended to be delicately avoided. Next Tuesday he meets Germany in the last 16 at Wembley (18.00, Four). 25 years ago, also at Wembley, also against Germany, in another European Championship, then-defender Southgate missed his penalty in the tiebreaker and England was left without a final. The memory has haunted him for decades, as he told for example in his memoirs: “I tell myself that time has passed, that people no longer care about the penalty. And then I’m at a hotel reception and a girl says to her boyfriend: “I think that’s the guy who missed the penalty.”
Yesterday Jordan Henderson, Liverpool midfielder, assured that the topic had not come up in the national team camp: “We have not talked about 96,” he said in an appearance in which he said that the night before they had received a visit from musician Ed Sheeran , who had gotten on to the guitar and sung some songs to them after a barbecue “in the open air”. “The boys had a good time,” he said. The elephant is in the room, but they try not to feed it.
Southgate himself has wanted to reduce from the beginning of the tournament the historical resonances of the matches, such as Scotland, the oldest rivalry in the world. The previous days he insisted several times that he had not spent time explaining to the young people what the crash meant, because he preferred that they face it as one more match in the tournament. Henderson has internalized it: “You try not to think so much about history and more about the game,” he said yesterday about the shadow of that fiasco against Germany.
Southgate does not fatten the legend, but neither does he shy away from it. Some of his trainer traits come from that night, such as his meticulousness. Months before the 2018 World Cup, he began to prepare his team for penalty shootouts. It was customary for training to end with a re-creation of the trance as faithful as possible. The players crossed from the center of the field to the penalty spot, stopped before the ball trying to imagine the moment and shot. There were lists of pitchers drawn up weeks in advance, including who could be on the field at the time, who could talk to the players and who could not, and data compilations from opposing goalkeepers and shooters. In Russia, in the round of 16 against Colombia, England overcame a shoot-out for the first time in 20 years.
Southgate’s profile as a coach has been shaped by his handling of obstacles. He went straight from the field to the bench at Middlesborough. In the summer of 2006, at the end of the season, the club could not find a technician and decided to appoint the first captain who had lifted a great trophy, the Carling Cup. At 35, it was difficult for him to manage the veterans, colleagues until a minute before, determined to continue calling him Gate or Narizotas, while with the young people he understood better. He endured two seasons of scrapping the club, in which he gave ground to the academy, and in the third he descended. He was fired shortly after starting the fourth, in October 2009. In January 2011 the federation appointed him director of the quarry, shortly before inaugurating its sports city of St. George’s Park.
Southgate was one of the founding stones of a project for the construction of football identity and generational renewal. In August 2013, he assumed the bench of the U21 team, at a time when the lower categories began to link international triumphs. With that group he already deployed the tactical catalog that he now uses in the absolute, for which he was appointed in 2016: the changes from defense from three to defense from five, from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, the wing mobility and the preparation of set pieces, unprecedented in this European Championship, but fruitful in Russia, where he led England to the third semi-final in their history.
Now in the second round he meets again that elephant from Germany that he has tried not to invoke, in a country determined to remember: the popular anthem of the European Championship at Wembley is once again the Football is coming home from the 1996 edition.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.