OVER 55 hurtful years, English football has had quite some cast-list.
Great servants, great goalscorers, great talents, great captains have all come and gone without once reaching the final of a major tournament.
Peter Shilton, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard all earned more than 100 caps without playing in one.
Likewise, tournament Golden Boot winners Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, as well as Ballon d’Or winners Michael Owen and Kevin Keegan.
Heroic leaders like Bryan Robson, Tony Adams and Paul Ince and mesmeric talents such as Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Glenn Hoddle.
On Wednesday, Gareth Southgate’s team can attain a level none of those legends ever reached.
On the eve of the Euros semi-final against Denmark, Southgate paid tribute to the men who played their parts in ‘all those oh-so-nears’.
And he suggested England can now build a dynasty of success, with young players becoming used to reaching the sharp end of tournaments.
Boss Southgate said: “Playing for England, you are part of a family and a line of people who have a very special experience. Without a doubt, the boys should recognise that and I think they do.
“There’s no doubt we are the fortunate ones who are involved in these games but we’ve spoken a lot about the legacy and the players who have gone before us – so many exceptional role models, exceptional players, incredible individual achievements.
“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 and the things that didn’t quite go as hoped.
“It has been great to get so many messages from former players and former managers – Glenn Hoddle has been in touch with me.”
Southgate believes the younger members of his squad will go into future tournaments holding none of the fears of their fore-fathers, after reaching back-to-back semi-finals at the 2018 World Cup and these Euros.
He said: “I’m thinking about the team in eight years’ time, when maybe Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham are still in it and they have had an incredible experience of England doing well.
“That is the standard for them now, where perhaps in the past youngsters coming in might have been inhibited, fearing some of these barriers that were perceived to be there.
“So there’s no question that to be in the latter stages of tournaments is where we want to be, and on a consistent basis.
“The flip side of that is, the rest of us who were in Russia and got to this point in the World Cup, won’t be going home content if we don’t beat Denmark.
“We’ll feel that disappointment, without a doubt. Whether it gives us extra motivation, I don’t know.
“But we certainly feel we’re calm in our preparation and very focused – and able to put the emotional part to one side, and be more guided about what we need to play Denmark.”
The last time Denmark visited Wembley in October – winning 1-0 in a Nations League match which saw Harry Maguire and Reece James sent off – Southgate admits he was going through a ‘miserable’ autumn.
His side are being feted again now after a landmark last-16 victory over Germany and the 4-0 quarter-final gubbing of Ukraine.
Yet last autumn, Southgate was being battered as he staggered from one crisis to the next – Maguire’s arrest, Foden and Mason Greenwood sent home from Iceland in disgrace, and FA chairman Greg Clarke resigning in disgrace on the eve of a match – all in the middle of a stifling pandemic.
Southgate said: “The autumn was a very difficult period for us.
“So many things we had to deal with from before we named the first squad in September, through to events during games, just before the games, lack of availability of players. We hardly ever had the opportunity to field our strongest team.
“I’d say it was the start of a period where I felt a high level of criticism and judgement that has existed really since the last game or so, so it was a definite shift in how we were viewed.
“It was the first time I had experienced that since Russia. That was a very good learning process for us.
“I knew when I took the job what it was. I was under no illusions. I was a kid watching Sir Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor. I played for Terry Venables, Glenn, Sven-Goran Eriksson, and Kevin Keegan.
“We were in an interesting period – midway through the pandemic, no fans in stadiums.
“I can’t say I enjoyed the autumn matches at all. The Covid restrictions were really inhibiting, with lads not able to sit and chat.
“So much of what we are about is this social part and this connection with each other.
“I thought it was a miserable experience for players. We were fulfilling fixtures rather than looking forward to them.
“Everything was geared around not losing players rather than performing well. Then we’re asking players to perform freely on the pitch when every other part of their life was totally restricted.
“So it’s been a joy to be in a bubble now where we’ve been able to sit outside, where we’re tested so regularly that we’ve had the freedom in the camp. It’s made so much difference.”
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