Belfast Telegraph

World Cup: Southgate invokes spirit of '66 as Lions feel history at their shoulder

By Adrian Rutherford

Gareth Southgate has revealed how the spirit of 1966 is inspiring England's World Cup journey.

They take on Croatia on Wednesday night for a place in the final.

Ahead of their biggest game in a generation, Southgate has told his players the next few days can change their lives for ever.

"They know they stand on a moment of history and they're desperate to do as well as they possibly can," he said.

"They don't need any motivation for this now.

"It's all there, it's all apparent and we've just got to prepare them as well as we can for the game."

England beat Sweden to reach their first World Cup semi-final since 1990.

Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli set up a last-four clash against Croatia in Moscow.

Their only appearance in a final came back in 1966 when they beat West Germany 4-2.

Southgate has used the stories of that triumph as inspiration, and believes the current team can become even bigger heroes.

"We've talked, touched briefly, certainly, on the team which won. How they're still held and revered," he said, adding: "I've met quite a few of those players and we know exactly how they're held.

"Perhaps in the modern era that would be even crazier - social media and everything else, the global thing is so much bigger."

Back in England, the national team - vilified after the debacle at Euro 2016 - is once more a source of pride.

The bond between Southgate and the fans was again evident at the Samara Arena on Saturday.

After the final whistle he celebrated wildly, shouting and pumping his fist in front of the travelling support.

Southgate added: "I only played for three clubs, I have a real affinity with all three, but England has been the biggest part of my life really.

"To be able to manage the team to this point, having played in a semi-final as well, is really, really special."

In the build-up to the quarter-final, Southgate had spoken about the chance to write history.

It was a theme he returned to post-match on Saturday.

"I think we are just enjoying the journey, that's definitely helped us, everything we've done has been based on enjoyment," he added.

"How far can we go? Let's push the boundaries, let's create our own history and they are continuing to do that all of the time.

"We know where we are, we know we're not the finished article and I don't think we have loads of world class players.

"There are other teams in the tournament that perhaps have a better collection of individuals.

"But we've been a real team and we have got some excellent players, no doubt about that, but the collective strength has been massive."

England have four days to recover before facing Croatia in the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday night.

Their opponents have had two energy-sapping 120-minute games, after needing penalties to overcome Denmark in the last-16 and then Russia in their quarter-final in Sochi on Saturday night.

Southgate is concerned about the demands of the tournament on his players.

Harry Kane looked weary at the end of Saturday's game, and Jordan Henderson was taken off as a precaution.

Southgate said it vindicated his decision to play a weakened team in the final group game against Belgium.

"They've been through a lot. More the other night (against Colombia) coming into Saturday," he added.

"But of course you get an accumulation of fatigue through a tournament, that's why we took the decision we did against Belgium more than anything.

"So we'll just have to assess people as we go.

"Hendo was another one who was feeling tightness in his hamstring, which was why we made the change. We'll just have to assess the bodies."

Harry Kane, meanwhile, believes England's World Cup heroes can inspire a generation - just like he was as a young fan.

The striker has become the poster boy of the Three Lions' campaign in Russia with six goals so far.

Kane recalls with affection the buzz from watching past tournaments, dreaming one day of pulling on the England jersey.

"As a player, as a professional, I know I have a job on and off the pitch - to inspire people, to inspire hopefully kids, watching this tournament," he said.

"It's amazing, because I was one of those kids growing up who wanted to play for England.

"So to be here, to be a part of it, leading this team out, I'm so proud."

Kane scored twice in the opening game against Tunisia, including a last-minute winner, and a hat-trick in the rout of Panama.

He also converted a penalty in normal time in the last-16 win over Colombia.

And while he didn't score against Sweden on Saturday, Kane still played his part in a confident England display.

"I thought it was a great performance, obviously with so much pressure - the world watching on, England watching on," he added.

"But I thought we handled it really well.

"We were composed, we played our style and a 2-0 win in a quarter-final is all you can ask for."

Meanwhile, Dele Alli, who scored England's second goal, said it was a great team performance.

The midfielder, by his own admission, didn't have his best game.

Yet he was there to head in Jesse Lingard's cross to double the lead, after Harry Maguire's first half opener.

It made Alli (22) the second youngest England scorer in a World Cup game, after Michael Owen.

"When you look at it like that, obviously it's great, but more importantly it was about the team," he said.

"Personally I don't think I played as well as I should have, but the team were resilient, defended well and dominated the game.

"Obviously it's always nice to score but more importantly we're through to the next round."

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