Calmness the key for Gareth Southgate amid concerns over fans' behaviour as history beckons for England
No matter the enormous reach of Gary Lineker’s social media presence, there’s more chance of Raheem Sterling staying upright during the 90 or more minutes than Wembley falling silent for the Italian national anthem tonight.
This is the way it is in football. Lineker has spent too long in a glass pundits’ cube if he does not realise that. The former England skipper has appealed on Twitter for fans to stay schtum: “If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket for the final, please, please don’t boo the national anthem. A/ it’s an absolute belter and worth listening to. B/ it’s bloody rude, disrespectful and utterly classless.”
It’s also fanciful in the extreme to expect respectful behaviour on a night of such broiling emotion. Italy are the enemy standing between England and something they have craved since 1966. Not until now have they been so close to lifting another major title. Minding ps and qs won’t be top of a lot of fans’ priorities.
Many times in recent days these supporters have been told by an increasingly hysterical English media that this is their time, this is what they deserve. If there is to be some silence from the fans, far better that it comes to mark the death, announced yesterday, of Paul Mariner, the former England centre forward who was diagnosed with brain cancer only last October.
“He is part of the England family and we were sorry to hear that news," said Gareth Southgate last night.
It seems it is too short notice to pay tribute at tonight’s Euro 2020 final. “I think the FA are going to try to pay their respects in a better way in September when there’s a little more time to arrange everything and his family can hopefully be invited,” added Southgate.
Mariner struck 13 goals in 35 caps between 1977 and 1985 – including a winner against Scotland at Hampden in 1982. It is a more than decent record, particularly since he played at a time when England did not routinely quality for finals. And when they did, such as 1980’s European Championships when Mariner made two substitute appearances, they were eliminated at the group stage.
That tournament featured the near-reverse of tonight’s situation, when Italy bid to overcome the home favourites in a very partisan environment. The sides met in Turin in a group game at the Italy-hosted event 41 years ago. It was a showdown of sorts. The 1-0 loss suffered by England confirmed they could not win the eight-team tournament (the two group winners met in the final).
This was the competition when then manager Ron Greenwood was moved to note, with reference to rioting England fans: “we have done everything to create the right impression, then these bastards let you down”.
It has been a long road from there to the more becalmed situation currently, when jeering is the issue. Southgate last night referenced fans throwing paper aeroplanes at the beginning of his tenure because they were so bored. It’s an improvement on chucking chairs, that’s for sure.
England players are now queueing up to stress that it’s all about the fans, it’s all about giving them something back after 55 years of hurt.
Fortunately, supporters nowadays are less inclined to cause actual physical hurt to others, other than hurting feelings, which seems the worst booing a national anthem can do, although Southgate yesterday suggested it could also harm the team’s chances of success.
“We would always ask our fans to be respectful of the opposition,” he said. “We would hope for the same when we travel. I know when our anthem is booed it does inspire me a bit more when I’m away from home. Whatever the intentions might be, there’s a good chance you’re giving more motivation to the opponent.”
This is football at the cutting edge. Not only are the England men’s side back in a final after such a long absence, but they face one of the most successful teams in international football history.
Italy have been World champions four times and European champions once, finishing runners-up as recently as 2012. The current side seem determined to follow in this distinguished tread and share the characteristics of many of their predecessors, including when it comes to crafty gamesmanship or, as it's otherwise known, winning football matches by hook or by crook.
It’s easy to imagine Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini going to bed with a smile last night as he relished the prospect of being a destroyer of dreams in a drama likely to be as slow burning as a spaghetti western.
As with his team, who found a way, just, to beat Croatia and then stumbled against Scotland, Southgate has not been completely faultless. His words last week invoking the “courage” of the wartime generation against a force that tried to “invade us”, which, he added, accounted for some of the energy in the 2-0 win over Germany, seemed a rare misstep.
It smacked of him trying just a little too hard to come up with something crowd-pleasing after weeks of measured opinions from someone who has attempted, and mostly succeeded, to keep a lid on things. Asked if he had a speech prepared ahead of this evening, he said: “I didn’t say very much at all before the semi-final because I felt the team were totally prepared.
“I normally assess where they are during the day,” he added. “We usually have a meeting about the set-plays in the morning and then I’ll speak to them before we leave the hotel.
“You’re two hours before the game at that point. You want the message to resonate but it’s about how you make the players feel as much as anything. We don’t need to be getting them over-hyped. There will be enough energy and excitement around the stadium due to the occasion itself.
“We need to keep that calmness that we have had for the whole month. We’ve dealt with it really well. The opening game (v Croatia), the game against Scotland - we were disappointed with how it went - but it was a big occasion for us. Germany was another one and then the quarter and the semi-final.
"The players have coped remarkably well. I’m certain they will do so again.”
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