Gareth Southgate believes England’s players are as prepared, focused and ready as they can be for their eagerly anticipated World Cup opener against Tunisia.
His squad look in fine fettle heading into tonight’s Group G encounter in Volgograd, thanks to seamless, injury-free preparations that have brought hope and no little excitement.
The eyes of millions will be focused on the Volgograd Arena when Southgate’s young side take to the field in their first major tournament match since their humiliating Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Iceland.
But the England manager does not believe his callow group should be burdened by such failings ahead of facing Tunisia – nor does he believe they need to be loaded with any more information.
“I am conscious that when I was a player there were moments before the game when I thought ‘all the manager can do now is f*** it up for me and put me off my game’ because I was ready and didn’t want to hear too much more,” the 57-cap former defender said.
“And I think the boys are ready.
“We tried to put in as much tactical information in the early part of the week so that Sunday’s session was about enjoyment, feeling the ball and being physically ready for the game.
“So, there will be some key messages, but it will really just be around transferring what they are doing every day because that level they are playing at every day is high and is getting better all the time. It’s competitive and that is really important because you can’t step it up going into matches but they won’t need to step it up tomorrow from what they have been doing in training because that level they have been hitting is high.”
If England can get anywhere near those levels, they should kick off a major tournament with victory for the first time since 2006.
The cost and associated concerns over travelling to Russia mean England would do that in front of a far smaller “dyed-in-the-wool” following than they are used to, but Southgate is confident of giving those in Russia and at home something to shout about.
The manager spoke about that and a variety of other matters with a typically calm assurance yesterday, when he could have been forgiven for looking more nervous on the eve of managing his country at the World Cup.
“To be honest, I feel much more relaxed coaching than I did playing,” he said with a smile. “Which probably tells you something about my ability as a player!”
Self-deprecating humour and honesty have been common features of a reign in which Southgate has attempted to change England’s on-field philosophy and off-field perception.
“It’s a very proud moment, of course,” he said of leading his team at a major tournament for the first time.
“My family are incredibly patriotic. My granddad was a marine. I’ve always been brought up with England being a core part of what we stood for and my life.
“To have played for England in major tournaments and now managing England is of course a huge honour.
“But my focus can’t be that I’m a tourist and I’m chuffed to be here, and I will for sure enjoy the experience because I know too many things I did in the past I didn’t take in.
“I think I’d be able to take those things in and focus on the job now because I’m more experienced.
“But it is another game of football, on a pitch the size that these boys have played on all their lives and we have to prepare them that way.”
Such considered tutelage coupled with the promise at his disposal has brought encouragement ahead of the World Cup, but it is underpinned by common sense.
“There’s a realism about expectations,” Southgate added in the bowels of the Volgograd Arena. “Everybody knows this is a team that is progressing and improving but we’re not the finished article.
“I think it’s going to be an exciting time to watch these boys play. I’m excited watching them.
“We really like watching the level in training, the competition and the spirit, not just in training but when they’re relaxing as well.
“It depends what the expectation is, as to whether that’s matching what’s been there in the past.
“But our focus has to be on the things we can control and getting better every day we work together and tomorrow transferring what we do on the training pitch into the game.”