Gareth Southgate confident England have banished fear on road to history

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Gareth Southgate has ­challenged ­England to ­forget past disappointments and “change ­history” by ­reaching a first major ­tournament final on ­foreign shores when they face the Netherlands on Wednesday night.

England enter their Euro 2024 semi-final as favourites despite a slow-burning month’s work that has received heavy criticism at times. But they are one game from entering uncharted territory and, if they can negotiate a pressure-cooker ­atmosphere in Dortmund to win the 23rd meeting of these old rivals, they will have achieved something unmatched by their male predecessors.

Three years ago Southgate’s players reached the final at Wembley after beating Denmark. But their previous last-four appearance, against ­Croatia at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, ended in heartbreak and the manager hopes such setbacks fuel their hunger to take the next step.

“We’ve risen well to those ­challenges over the years and used them as motivation to break new ground,” Southgate said of the task England face at BVB Stadion ­Dortmund. “We’ve never been to a final outside our own shores. These are opportunities to make a ­difference and that’s how we have to look at it.

“We don’t want to be burdened by what’s happened before. We’ve got to use this opportunity to change ­history as a motivation, and that’s how the players see it. It’s about their moment now, nothing that’s gone on in the past. None of that is their fault or concern.”

Although not without flaws, the shootout win over Switzerland was England’s best performance of the tournament and suggested an improvement at the right time. Southgate spoke of a “fascinating experience” overseeing a team he felt was “fearful” in earlier fixtures.

“[They were] almost concerned about what could go wrong,” he said. “We haven’t had that for a few years. Maybe that was expectation, maybe that was a lot of external things as well. But now they’re very much in a ‘What’s achievable, what’s ­possible?’ sort of mindset. I think we saw a truer reflection of ourselves in the last game.”

The response, inside and outside his squad, to England’s second group game, against Denmark, concerned Southgate and prompted him to address their trepidation head on. Before they met Slovenia he showed them photographs of other sides’ more carefree reactions. “We ­definitely spoke about it,” he said. “When you can sense that feeling you need to ­confront it. It’s no use avoiding it and hoping it will go away.

“The Denmark game, the point we got, there’s a picture of the ­players looking distraught. They’ve got a point that essentially ensured us qualifying. Every other team was ­celebrating with their fans at that, and we were on our knees. So I had to correct how they were viewing things. That feeling was being ­reinforced so vocally and actively outside, and I think they were picking up on that too much.”

Speaking after England had ­completed a training session in temperatures exceeding 30C, Harry Kane suggested the sheen acquired through recent successes can carry them through when performances falter. The real fear factor, he observed, may be transmitted by England’s players to their opposition.

Harry Kane believes he is ‘getting better and sharper’ as Euro 2024 progressesView image in fullscreen

“We still haven’t reached the full potential you’ve seen for several years now,” Kane said. “But we’re still in a good place and leaning on a lot of experience. We’re leaning on being here before, even just the perception from other teams. When you’ve been in finals, semi-finals, on a consistent basis that gives you a certain aura as a team that other nations look at.

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“We’ve built that up over past ­tournaments and now we’re in a ­situation where we deserve to be [here]. It’s not easy getting through any round and we’ve found a way to do it.”

Kane acknowledged semi-finals are viewed differently, comparing this year with the newness of ­“riding that wave” in 2018. “You have to ­handle a different kind of pressure,” he said. “If you get knocked out in the quarter-finals or round of 16 there’ll be a lot more uproar than in previous tournaments.”

A goal return of two, coupled with some below-par showings, has brought calls for Kane to be dropped but he dismissed suggestions he is struggling physically. “Sometimes when I don’t score I think the fitness one is an easy one to throw in: ‘Why? Is there a reason? Is it his fitness?’ But I felt I had a good preparation going into the tournament; I feel I’m ­getting better and sharper as the games go along.”

England can call on a fully fit squad who have enjoyed smoother ­preparation than their opponents. The Netherlands’ train from their camp in ­Wolfsburg was cancelled on Tuesday afternoon and led to a hastily scheduled evening flight. Southgate’s biggest selection call will be whether to bring in Luke Shaw, who staked a claim in returning against Switzerland and has a chance of displacing Kieran Trippier at left-back. Marc Guéhi is also pushing to regain his place from Ezri Konsa after suspension.

Southgate wants Wednesday to be merely the start of a summer success story. “Our semi-final tally looks a bit more like what we’d hope an England history would look like,” he said. “But there are a lot of nations who have won the European Championship and we haven’t. We want to try and redress that balance.”


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