GARETH SOUTHGATE describes them as his “tribal elders”.
Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire.
England’s four goalscorers on this march to the semi-finals of the Euros and four men who have been widely doubted in recent weeks.
Sterling arrived at this tournament after a prolonged dip in form for Manchester City – but scored England’s first three goals.
Kane began with two below-par performances and was hauled off 15 minutes from time in the goalless draw with Scotland.
Maguire and Henderson were both included in the 26-man squad, despite injuries which left Southgate admitting he was unsure whether they would play any part in the Euros.
Yet he picked them on reputation, rather than form or fitness and has been vindicated in spectacular style.
In the afterglow of Saturday’s 4-0 thumping of Ukraine – in which Kane scored twice, Maguire and Henderson added one apiece and Sterling was again outstanding – the Three Lions manager explained the importance of that quartet in the building of this, the best England squad in half a century.
Southgate said: “Within any team there’s a core group that drives everybody on and I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of that.
“Young players that come in have high ambition but there’s a bond between groups that forms over time, where you know when challenges are made, when there’s a need to dig in, when things are happening around the camp – and that core group is really important.
“I would argue that Henman came up against opponents who were incredible in their era.
“The lads that were with us at the World Cup in Russia, the lads you just mentioned, Kieran Trippier is another, Jordan Pickford another, they’ve been through these experiences together.
“They pass that on to the younger group and they take the lead from the tribal elders. It’s not just about talent. Team building is about so much more than that.
“It’s about relationships and the strength of those bonds.
“That core group has allowed a younger group to come in and have a profile, based on the hard work of those who had gone before.
“The newer players recognise that and appreciate the way those older guys have made them feel welcome.”
Henderson’s inclusion in the squad was particularly controversial, with the Liverpool skipper having not played between February and June following groin surgery.
Before England’s final warm-up game, Roy Keane asked whether Henderson was only there to “do card tricks and lead sing-songs”.
Yet Henderson arrived as a sub to net England’s fourth goal in Rome – his first in 62 internationals – as Southgate’s men cruised towards Wednesday’s semi-final against Denmark.
And Southgate said: “I loved the reaction on the bench when Hendo scored, because you could see the younger players were totally delighted for him.
“There’s a lovely moment with Jude Bellingham, that shows you what Hendo brings to our environment, that the players were so pleased for him. We all were.
“He’s really accepted that this was going to be a difficult and different challenge but he’s totally thrown himself into it.
“When I talked to him ahead of the first training camp, we talked through this scenario and he was adamant he just wanted to contribute any way he could.
“It’s brilliant for Hendo that he’s had a moment like that and he’s been crucial around the camp.
“Conor Coady was the first one off the bench, jumping in the air replicating Hendo’s header.
“And that type of character, Conor – who is one of the loudest voices in the dressing room before a game and on the training pitch every day – you can’t put a value on those sorts of people.”
Maguire suffered a personal nightmare the last time England faced Denmark at Wembley, when he was sent off after half an hour of October’s 1-0 Nations League defeat.
That followed the Manchester United skipper’s arrest in Mykonos in August.
And Southgate said: “The beginning of this season was very difficult for Harry on a number of fronts, so it’s brilliant to see how he has emerged with so much more confidence as a leader.
“Being captain of Manchester United is a massive challenge, a massive responsibility but it’s brought a lot more out of him.
“He’s more confident in himself and has gone on to another level, not just in his game but in his maturity.”
Building a strong squad ethos has been a process that goes back to Southgate’s time as Under-21s boss, where he and assistant Steve Holland first teamed up in 2013, starting with a 1-0 win over Moldova, with John Stones and Luke Shaw in defence and Kane arriving as a late sub.
And while Southgate has taken his players on army training sessions as team-building exercises, he says real-life experiences have truly melded England into a successful unit.
That includes suffering the vile racist chanting aimed at England’s black players by Montenegro and Bulgaria supporters in the Euros qualifiers.
Those experiences have made Southgate and his team so steadfast in their desire to take the knee in support of racial equality, despite booing from some England supporters.
He added: “We went to the army camp and did stuff which definitely helped – but going through games together, going through those real-life experiences together, really builds teams. There’s no shortcut to that.
“With taking the knee, what happened in Montenegro and Bulgaria was the start for us.
“We had really open conversations where people got to know each other better, got to know each other’s feelings and respected their views.
“So it was clear in my head how we would need to respond.
“They are decisions that haven’t been universally popular but they are what we stand for as a team and, even though that might have disappointed some people, it was critical for us to support team-mates.”