Gareth Southgate is confident England will show no fear in their Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark. He has urged his side to create an iconic Wembley moment by reaching a tournament final for the first time since the 1966 World Cup.
England will be out to make history when they face Denmark in front of 66,000 supporters on Wednesday night and the size of the occasion is not lost on their manager.
Southgate, who has received messages of support from past teammates and managers, spoke with pride about his players changing the narrative around the national team and he wants them to give the fans special memories of Wembley, pointing out the stadium has lacked era-defining moments since reopening in 2007.
“Wembley has a fantastic history but a lot of those memories would be from the old stadium,” Southgate said. “I don’t expect Denmark to come being fearful of Wembley. They’ve got experienced players and they’ll enjoy playing there but we’ve got to make the game one that they don’t enjoy.
“The history of the stadium relies on those iconic moments. There have been less of those headline events at the new Wembley, whereas this tournament is one of those moments where we’ve had the chance to have some very high-profile games already and achieve some big moments.
“There’s some sort of pictures on the wall as you drive into the dressing rooms of iconic England moments but some of them aren’t even from finals. [David] Beckham’s free-kick against Greece was a qualifier. Our players over the last two tournaments, they’ve been able to create some really special memories, especially for youngsters. Bless them, they think it’s like this all the time with England.”
Southgate, who could replace Jadon Sancho with Bukayo Saka on the right flank, believes England will play with freedom as they try to reach their first European Championship final. He saw his young side hold their nerve against Germany in the last 16 and he expects another composed display against Denmark.
“I’ve not heard the new Wembley have an atmosphere like it did for the Germany game,” Southgate said. “I’m sure tomorrow is going to be very special. They know that this is a great chance to be the first team to get to a [Euros] final. But they’re excited by it. I don’t think they’re inhibited by it.
“For them it’s just the next of a number of big games. I’m not worried about the occasion, we had that with the opening game [against Croatia] and we dealt with that. We had that with the Germany game and we dealt with that. I’ve got total trust in them.”
England have improved since losing their World Cup semi-final against Croatia three years ago and Southgate said he felt lucky to be in a position to end the country’s long history of falling short.
“We’ve spoken a lot about the legacy and the players who have gone before us,” he said. “They had the same level of passion as these players have for playing for their country and we’ve learned a lot from their near-misses.”
Southgate stressed that Denmark, spurred on by emotion since Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, would be dangerous opponents. England struggled against Denmark in the Nations League last autumn, drawing 0-0 in Copenhagen before losing 1-0 at Wembley, and Southgate found himself under pressure.
“The autumn was a very difficult period for us,” he said. “I’d say it was the start of a period [when] I felt a high level of criticism and judgment that has existed really until the last game or so. It was a definite shift in how we were viewed. It was the first time I’d experienced that since Russia. That was a very good learning process.”
Southgate brushed off the criticism and the mood is far more positive now. “I knew when I took the job what it was. I was a kid watching Sir Bobby [Robson] and Graham Taylor. I played for Terry [Venables], for Glenn [Hoddle], for Sven[-Göran Eriksson], for Kevin [Keegan].
“I just think we were in an interesting period: midway through the pandemic, no fans in the stadiums. I can’t say I enjoyed the autumn matches at all. The Covid restrictions on the camps were really inhibiting, with lads not able to sit and chat. So much of what we are about as a team is this social part and this connection with each other.
“It was a miserable experience for players. We’re asking players to perform freely on the pitch when every other part of their life was totally restricted. It’s been a joy to be in a bubble now where we’ve been able to sit outside all the time. We’ve had the freedom in the camp. It’s made a massive difference to how we’ve been able to work.”