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Gareth Southgate urges England to put on a show against San Marino 


There is a reason San Marino are the lowest ranked team in world football. Thursday night’s opponents for England have only scored one goal in their last 25 games and have lost all but two of their last 40.

Their two results of note since a 0-0 draw at home to Estonia have been two other more recent goalless matches against Liechtenstein and Gibraltar.

So when Gareth Southgate looked back on his first memory of watching England, the fact it was a Luther Blissett hat-trick in a 9-0 beating of Luxembourg in 1982 felt appropriate. 

Gareth Southgate wants his England side to show their authority against San Marino

Gareth Southgate wants his England side to show their authority against San Marino

Back then, Luxembourg were whipping boys, too. In the couple of years prior to that game, they had lost to Burma, the United States and Japan. They had won a game — in 1980 — a 1-0 win against Thailand.

You see, there are easy games in international football even if England have done their best to try to disprove the theory over the years. That was certainly one 38-and-a-half years ago and this is another on Thursday night. San Marino are a free hit for Southgate and one that he wants his team to enjoy taking.

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‘There is always that responsibility to entertain,’ said Southgate on Wednesday night. 

‘With England we connect with a different TV audience. The games are on terrestrial TV. It goes beyond the hardcore Premier League fans. It’s nan, grandad, aunt, uncle. It’s shared moments. That’s how we all started having memories of England.

England have been preparing for the clash and are widely expected to win by a huge margin

England have been preparing for the clash and are widely expected to win by a huge margin

‘We know what big England nights mean and we all remember where we were for certain qualifiers. I have a Luther Blissett hat-trick in my head as a kid. There will be something in this game that hopefully will stick in kids’ heads. We should never lose sight of that romance.

‘We try to play good football. We are conscious of that. We have tried to come from the long haul of those nights when people were throwing paper aeroplanes on to the field.

‘We have not always managed to get it right but it’s our intention. Entertaining is as important as winning and we feel that responsibility. England is hugely important to people and that sometimes gets slightly washed over by the big (Premier League) machine we are working alongside.’

Southgate has a point about the Premier League but also misses a point. England, for too long, were too easily pushed aside by the Premier League. The football, under the likes of Roy Hodgson and Fabio Capello, was too often unwatchable. At times, absolutely anything else was preferable.

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Southgate’s team have faced some challenges since their run to the semi-final of the last World Cup but they are without question much easier on the eye.

In charge of his 50th game on Thursday night, Southgate has shown some cautious tendencies recently but remains a manager who fundamentally wants his best players to play freely.

‘There were times in my day that we went into these games with apprehension, wondering what would happen if we didn’t score until the 60th minute,’ he said. ‘I want this team to score goals. I want them to play this game knowing they will have the ball and looking forward to that. They have to go and enjoy their football.’

Certainly, tougher challenges are ahead for Southgate and his team. In the short term, they are in Albania on Sunday and then face Poland back at Wembley next Wednesday. Beyond that, there are the summer’s Euros, a tournament that the pandemic still has at its mercy. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces scattered, and Southgate admitted he doesn’t know how and where that will all fit together.

In terms of his preparation, it will continue to be far from ideal. Without key players this week, he only has two more games — June friendlies against Austria and Romania — before the Euros.

‘For planning it is really difficult,’ agreed Southgate. ‘We almost have three different scenarios running. The best and worst case and one somewhere in the middle.

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‘It is a frustrating environment and you see accounts of other international sports such as cricket and rugby and how difficult that is for everybody.

England pictured playing against San Marino in 2014. The side are currently the lowest ranked in world football

England pictured playing against San Marino in 2014. The side are currently the lowest ranked in world football

‘It is not something to complain about. It is an ever-moving feast and we have to adapt better than everyone else.’

For sure, this is not how Southgate envisaged the second phase of his time as coach playing out. But as he looks for positives, he can find one in the return to form — and to his squad — of some of his World Cup team of three summers ago.

Jesse Lingard and John Stones are back, as is Luke Shaw. All will want to play on Thursday night. As, of course, does Harry Kane.

It’s San Marino. Who wouldn’t?



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