Belfast Telegraph

How England have restored connection with fans, explains Gareth Southgate


Smiles better: Gareth Southgate has talked up the mood among England players and fans
Smiles better: Gareth Southgate has talked up the mood among England players and fans
Raheem Sterling with Jesse Lingard

By Simon Peach

Gareth Southgate believes England have reconnected with fans that not so long ago were jeering his team and aiming paper planes at them.

Passion and excitement for the national team has waned in recent years, thanks in no small part to a group-stage exit at the last World Cup and the galling Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland.

Southgate was parachuted into the hot seat, having initially been reluctant to step into the Three Lions void, and has overseen an impressive change in fortunes since taking the reins.

England reached the World Cup and then the last 16 with a match to spare, with Colombia next up in Moscow this Tuesday.

"The players have been able to change perceptions of how an England team might play," Southgate told BBC Sport. "We mustn't lose sight of that.

"Ten months ago we qualified for the World Cup by beating Slovenia and people were throwing paper airplanes on to the pitch at Wembley.

"We were driving back to our hotel after beating Malta with some obscene chants being thrown at us from supporters."

Southgate added: "I feel like we've started to connect the team with the public again.

"I feel like we've created excitement, like we've played in a style that has really shown an expression of what young English players are capable of, and I want us to continue doing that."

England are looking to win a first knock-out match since 2006, building on the goodwill that increased with the Group G victories over Tunisia and Panama.

"I really believe in the group of players we have got," Southgate said. "They are young. They are inexperienced.

"For some of them, this will be one of the biggest games they'll have been involved in, but maybe not the biggest.

"We've always got to keep that in context for the players."

Not being the biggest was a jibe Thibaut Courtois reportedly threw at fellow goalkeeper Jordan Pickford after Belgium's back-ups beat England's second string last week.

Southgate dismissed the Belgian's off-hand remark that he would have caught Adnan Januzaj's winner as he is 10 centimetres taller, so too any criticism for a goalkeeper who is yet to keep a clean sheet in Russia.

"I'm really pleased with his performances," the England boss told talkSPORT.

"I don't think he's had much chance with the goals that have gone in, that's a goalkeeper's lot at times.

"He knows the belief I have in him. He is an important fit for the way we play."

When Courtois' comments were put to him, Southgate added: "I remember when we were talking about young goalkeepers at a conference once.

"Martin Thomas, who's a brilliant coach educator now, was under-21 goalkeeping coach and was talking about the difference between goalkeepers.

"Size-wise, he said at the end of the day, you're talking about a Cadbury's Creme Egg between them.

"Of course some keepers are 6ft 6in, but they have attributes that they are not so good at. And you get slightly smaller ones who are athletically better and have different skill sets. "It's rare to find perfection in anybody."

Raheem Sterling has, meanwhile, vowed to "go crazy" if he ends an England goal drought which is close to reaching 1,000 days.

Sterling has scored only twice for his country in 40 caps, the last of which came against Estonia on October 9, 2015.

That lean patch is in stark contrast to his form at Manchester City, where he scored 23 times last season.

Sterling is expected to return to the starting XI for Tuesday's last-16 clash against Colombia and will not be indulging in any pre-prepared dance routines if he hits the back of the net - 999 days after his previous strike.

He said: "To be honest, I'm not a Jesse, who has his celebrations stored. I can't dance, I'm stiff as hell.

"It's the World Cup - put it in the back of the net, go crazy."

The 23-year-old had a wonderful chance to get on the scoresheet against Panama but saw his point-blank header brilliantly saved before John Stones finished it off.

The dam is surely due to break soon, though, particularly as he considers himself a more clear-minded attacking threat than in his younger days.

"My game has evolved in terms of being more mature. In my younger days I just wanted to run with the ball every second," he said.

"I'm getting better with my decision-making and just trying to finish my chances. I used to just dribble and stay wide and now I'm in the box more and getting more opportunities."

Sterling has seen stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo fall by the wayside in recent days and increasingly feels England have the qualities required to outlast all comers.

"I feel anyone can win it but the teams that are more disciplined - and I'm not saying Argentina and Portugal weren't - if you stay compact, wait for your moment, take your chances...I feel we have a chance," he said.

"In the World Cup I want to be part of a squad and team that can do something amazing for the country and hopefully go all the way and win it for the country."

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