Even if England don't win Euro 2024 - Southgate has changed what it means to support them

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England haven’t won a trophy yet - but Gareth Southgate has won hearts and minds and that is the most important victory of all.

There’s a school of thought that runs thus: If England don’t beat Spain on Sunday, and if it doesn’t actually come home after however many years of hurt it is now, then it will all have been for nothing and Gareth Southgate’s entire tenure will have been a failure. After all, what is the point of playing football if not to win trophies?

Ollie Watkins’ superb last-gasp goal against the Netherlands provided a rebuttal to that notion. With a sudden darting movement and a precision-guided swish of the right boot that propelled Aston Villa into the Champions League, the rain-sodden roof of Dortmund’s famous stadium was taken off its supporting beams and one of the great moments was written into the long and often tortuous history of English footballing fandom. Under Southgate, such moments have been more frequent that ever before, or at least since 1966.

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Evidently, if England actually do lift the Henri Delaunay trophy in Berlin next Sunday, it will be the apotheosis of everything Southgate has worked towards and the finest ‘moment’ that most fans will have experienced in their lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean that defeat would be without value. After all – remember what supporting England used to be like?

Sure, those ‘moments’ happened, but heaven knows that they were few and far between – and for every piece of brilliance seared onto the collective consciousness of the men and women tying their George Crosses to the railings of stadiums around the world, there was a commensurate low. Yes, there was Paul Gascoigne’s stunning goal against the Netherlands in 1996, but there was also his agonising near miss against Germany a couple of weeks later, not to mention the excruciating tears six years prior. Sure, we had Psycho’s penalty against Spain, but how many critical spot-kicks were missed before and after?

And granted, those emotional downswings have happened under Southgate as well. There was Harry Kane’s penalty blazing over the bar against France, the three misses against Italy at Wembley – for everything else that Southgate has achieved, he hasn’t quite managed to make 12 yards an entirely undaunting distance – but those moments of cruelty are made more bearable by being outnumbered, comfortably, by the moments of genuine ecstasy.

It's hard not to shake the feeling that Southgate’s most vocal critics this tournament (many of whom seem to have suddenly lost their voices) simply don’t remember how bad it used to be. Was there ever anything like Watkins’ goal, or Jude Bellingham’s overhead kick against Slovakia, under Roy Hodgson or Fabio Capello or Steve McClaren?

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Perhaps Southgate’s only mistake has been to be so consistently good, for so long, that he has made England fans feel entitled to victory. Rivals fans will tell you that the English always had that arrogance and presumption about them, but in truth they had known so much pain for so long that they wallowed in the pathos of it all. “England expects” may have been a phrase that cropped up on the back pages, but mostly what England fans expected was agonising defeats and they were never left disappointed for long. No country whose people assumed the right to win tournaments could have produced Three Lions, either. But now there is, beyond doubt, a large portion of the English support who are prepared to excoriate Southgate should England not end up with some silverware.

That’s a testament, in many ways, to just how good he has been in the eight years of his reign – a reign sufficiently long that many young fans genuinely have minimal memory of the bygone and benighted age that preceded him. If Lamine Yamal had been born in Bromley, he would have only a few fleeting formative memories of Iceland in 2016 and everything before that would be abstract pages from a history book. Southgate has completely upended the baseline sensations and experiences of supporting England, and now England fans really do expect – and it isn’t entirely unreasonable for them to do so.

Some will say that any old manager could do it with this team, but even if there weren’t dozens of lavishly-talented and trophyless teams throughout history to prove that point wrong, it’s worth remembering that he was taking England to the semi-finals of his first World Cup before Phil Foden, Declan Rice, Bukayo Saka or Bellingham were senior players. They got that far with Gary Cahill, Danny Rose and Jesse Lingard in the squad instead. It wasn’t the same side and many of England’s most talented players were yet to feature in first-team football.

Southgate has also completely detoxified the experience of playing for England. There is still an antagonistic relationship between fans and players (as the three who missed penalties against Italy three years ago will attest) but his activity-heavy training camps appear to have made being a part of the national side a genuinely enjoyable experience. The press have also been given better, more informal access, which has drawn some of the poison from the pens that used to fuel the worst excesses of fan backlashes after defeats and disappointments. If this is Southgate’s last tournament then he will leave his successor with the strongest foundations that any England manager in history has been provided with.

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At this point, there is no sensible yardstick by which Southgate cannot be judged the best England coach since Sir Alf Ramsey. Between 1966 and now, England have given the men’s job to experienced Champions League-winning coaches, foreigners with new ideas and Englishmen with old ones, experienced hands and newcomers who had spent most of their careers as backroom staff. All of them failed to get England into a final. Southgate has now done it twice, the only men’s manager to achieve that feat.

The showdown with Spain may well be the end of his reign – and regardless of the result, there will be a handful of people desperate to tear down his legacy and achievements. And perhaps the next coach will be even better. But all we know for now is that being an England fan has never, ever been like this before, that this level of sustained excellence is a completely alien experience for the country, and that Southgate deserves respect and gratitude whether England win Euro 2024 or not. It may well never be this good again.

And that, fundamentally, is the point. The only reason we care about winning a trophy is that it would feel great – but for the most part, nine times out of ten, it already feels pretty great to support England, something which hadn’t been the case for 50 years. It could be about to get better still but either way Southgate has brought the joy back after generations of frustration and misery and, yes, hurt. Don’t take it for granted, and don’t forget then when it all boils down to it, the feeling we shared when Watkins scored was why we’re all here in the first place.

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