‘Southgate stands on brink of glorious vindication’

  • 11 July 2024, 00:20 BST
Updated 4 hours ago

England manager Gareth Southgate stands on the brink of glorious vindication as a Euro 2024 campaign in which he has been pelted with beer cups and criticism offers up the prospect of a place in history.

The sight and sound of Southgate confronting naked hostility from fans after the dismal draw with Slovenia in the group game in Cologne seemed an age away amid the scenes of wild celebration that greeted Ollie Watkins’ last-minute winner, sinking the Netherlands and sending England to Sunday’s final against Spain in Berlin.

England rode their luck at times, but if fortune favours the brave then Southgate deserved it for the courage he showed when making the changes that raised eyebrows but ended up fashioning a dramatic victory on a humid, stormy night in Dortmund.

It means Southgate’s England are one game away from ending the long so-called “years of hurt” for the men’s team stretching back to the 1966 World Cup win under Sir Alf Ramsey.

This semi-final simmered all night. It was on the edge with nine minutes left and the score 1-1, extra time beckoning once more but the Netherlands looking more likely to score the winner.

Southgate has been criticised for his substitutions in Germany – those he has made and others he did not make – and some eyebrows were raised when he removed captain Harry Kane, always a move laced with risk, but, arguably more contentiously, Phil Foden, who had been one of England’s prime creative forces in his best performance of the tournament.

Watkins and Cole Palmer were introduced, then, with the clock ticking towards 90 minutes, they combined to justify Southgate’s substitutions in spectacular fashion.

Ivan Toney appeared a more obvious replacement for Kane but Southgate’s decision to go for Watkins proved to be a masterstroke.

Palmer made inroads into Dutch territory before slipping a cute pass into the path of Watkins, who felt Netherlands defender Stefan de Vrij at his back before turning neatly to fire a precise finish across keeper Bart Verbruggen into the far corner.

Cue mayhem as Aston Villa’s striker ran towards the touchline to be swamped by almost the entire England squad in a display of pure ecstasy. The Dutch players, meanwhile, were broken and Xavi Simons looked on the verge of tears as he looked on at England’s celebrations.

It was perfection from manager and players. England survived two minutes of stoppage time with ease, the Netherlands too stunned to mount a response.

Southgate actually looked like he had been outflanked by opposite number Ronald Koeman after he stiffened midfield by bringing on Joey Veerman to stifle Foden, then brought on the giant Wout Weghorst at half-time as a physical focal point – but it was the England manager’s changes that won the day.

The semi-final was played under foreboding skies and in sultry conditions after a huge storm hit Dortmund before kick-off, Simons setting the tone after seven minutes when he robbed a hesitant Declan Rice to rifle a 20-yard drive high past England keeper Jordan Pickford

It all happened in front of the vast orange mass of Netherlands fans who had rebuilt the part of Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion known as ‘the Yellow Wall’ in their own colour – but England’s response was their best football of the tournament.

The Dutch were furious at the penalty award that allowed England to equalise, referee Felix Zwayer adjudging Kane had been fouled after he kicked against the foot of Denzel Dumfries. It was harsh but Kane recovered to complete the formalities.

England dominated the rest of the first half, with Foden having a shot cleared off the line and hitting the woodwork, before an attritional second half ended in such drama.

What a contrast to Cologne as Southgate once again joined England’s fans in joyous union, the players later joining their families in the stands to relive what had just happened, many still wearing expressions that were a mixture of elation and disbelief.

Southgate knows he is a taste some England fans find difficult to acquire, but in four major tournaments over his eight years in charge there has been a World Cup semi-final in 2018, a Euro 2020 final, the World Cup quarter-final in 2022 and now a second successive Euros final – the first they will contest on foreign soil.

The question mark is whether Southgate is the winner England have craved since 1966. There will always be questions over his approach – justified or not – until he gets England over the line after coming so close so often.

Southgate has grown into this tournament along with England. He was understandably wounded by the personal abuse he received earlier in the tournament and has been uncharacteristically prickly on occasions – but was at his most relaxed so far when facing the media on this eve of this semi-final.

He talked about a weight of expectation being lifted by a place in the last four, his body language suggesting it applied to Southgate as much his players. He was back to being totally at ease and can now contemplate another major final.

England have a 58-year itch waiting to be scratched in Berlin – and Southgate will have answered every doubt aimed in his direction if he can plot a landmark victory over Spain.

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