MOSCOW – England's biggest game in 10 years, Gareth Southgate has called tonight. Biggest in eight, actually — that contest being the match against Germany in the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup.
But England’s manager, it is perhaps worth remembering, was not even working in football that summer. His principal employer was ITV, with part of his time also dedicated to supporting the ‘Hoof It’ campaign that urged football fans to drink less during the tournament.
Tonight here in Moscow, however, Southgate is looking to send the country into a state of alcoholic delirium by conquering Colombia and advancing in the half of the draw that represents England’s best chance in a major tournament in more than two decades.
For Southgate, it will be the kind of examination that many feared he might not be equipped for when he was thrust into this role in the wake of Sam Allardyce’s controversial departure.
In Allardyce, the Football Association had a man of vast experience who was something of an expert at nicking wins with inferior teams. After that defeat by Iceland he seemed perfect.
But Southgate was something altogether different. Promoted from the Under 21s, his only taste of senior management had been seven years earlier at Middlesbrough. And when he got that job there was a fuss because he did not have the coaching qualifications to work in the Premier League.
“Terry Venables and Martin O’Neill turned the job down so Steve Gibson thought I was worth a gamble,” he said after being fired by Boro in October 2009. “I was never going to turn down an opportunity like that but it was too early for me. I didn’t have my coaching badges and had never attended a management meeting in my life.
“The club were in debt, I had to sell players and cut the wage bill. I wasn’t qualified to deal with that.”
When Roy Hodgson resigned after that defeat by Iceland, Southgate did not feel ready for England, either. But when the job came up again only three months later, it was another opportunity he could not refuse.
So far, he has excelled. Qualification for the World Cup was secured but it is what the 47-year-old former England defender has done since which is so impressive - a change of culture as well as a change of style.
Tonight, however, makes different demands. Tonight is football at its most intense and, for a manager, its most mentally demanding.
Here last night, Southgate was asked if he is ready. Not his team. Him.
“Yes,” he said. “You have to keep answering those questions throughout your career, whether as a player or a manager. We are not preparing for this game any differently. The key is that the serious preparation is done and we have to keep things on track as normal. The players are in good spirits.
“We have found the balance between relaxing and preparing hard.” Southgate does have experience of such moments, including knockout contests that sometimes conclude with the perilous business of penalties.
He says his players are prepared for that, too. The psychometric tests have been completed, the rehearsals have been held on a daily basis and the players who will make that walk from the halfway line have been selected.
According to Ashley Young, the players have even decided where they each intend to put the ball. “The key is to pick a spot in training and not change your mind in a game,” he said.
Like Southgate, Young has missed a penalty for England. His came against Italy at Euro 2012. But he says he wants to make amends for that. Penalty shootouts - you missed against Italy. Confident to take another?
“Of course I’ll put my name forward,” said Young. “I have the confidence in my ability to take one. We’ve worked on them in practice.”
Southgate nodded approvingly. “He’s a player with outstanding set-play delivery and technique,” he said of Young. “We’ve been through all the various drills to prepare. We know our ranking of player - not just with us, but over the years where players have taken more in matches than others.”
Stirring words and carefully chosen. He declined repeat invitations to look beyond Colombia but did not pass on the opportunity to deliver his mantra.
Fabian Delph has gone home for the birth of a child and this, Southgate realised, was an opportunity to remind his players to deal with the pressure by applying some perspective.
“Some things in life are more important than football,” he said. “His wife is due to go into labour. Family is more important. At times like this, players who are family orientated should be supported by us. He’s buying his wife curries to try and speed up the pro-cess, but it’s a bit of perspective in life.”
What better way to approach tonight, even if it does come down to a lottery from 12 yards?Daily Mail