The Dickensian fog obscuring Wembley’s arch hardly looked a portent of a golden era for England’s national team as new manager Gareth Southgate spent his first day in the job trying to provide some cheer on Thursday.
On the field English football remains at a low ebb in the wake of their Euro 2016 debacle while off it depressing allegations of child abuse have rocked the sport.
It was hardly an uplifting backdrop for the 46-year-old to begin life as permanent manager, having signed a four-year deal on Wednesday, yet Southgate did his best to lift the mood, talking of his great expectations for a job dubbed a poisoned chalice.
“There are great expectations that come with this job and I’m looking forward to embracing that,” said Southgate, who impressed the FA’s hierarchy during a four-match ‘audition’ as interim manager in the wake of Sam Allardyce’s 67-day tenure.
“I’ve had a great insight over the last few weeks into what the job entails. I don’t think any job is impossible. Some are more difficult than others, some are more complex, and this is certainly one of those.
“Now is a great moment to step forward and help our country in what should be a very exciting period.”
Southgate enjoyed a relatively successful period in charge of England’s under 21s — fast-tracking several players into the senior squad. The level of scrutiny he will be under is about to go off the scale though and he was already facing some tough questions from the media on Thursday.
High on the agenda was captain Wayne Rooney’s now infamous “night off” after England’s World Cup qualifying victory over Scotland last month.
Southgate, who insisted there was no “break clause” in his contract following the 2018 World Cup, offered measured support for Rooney, who was photographed after a late-night drinking session at the team’s hotel.
“Wayne Rooney is the England captain, I’ve said that since the beginning of the interim period,” Southgate said. “I think what is also clear is that I only selected him to start in two of the four games that we’ve had.
“I don’t think laying down the law is necessary for this group of players. There has to be trust between coach and players but there need to be guidelines and players need to take leadership in that.
“We need an environment and culture around the team that will enable us to perform at our very best.
“If we think we are good enough to play the best teams in the world and give ourselves a slight handicap along the way, then good luck with that.”
Southgate’s first task, and the most straightforward, will be to complete the job of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
The hard part will be trying to end England’s chronic failure to make an impact at major tournaments.
He said his role was partly that of “psychologist” trying to allow players to perform for England as they do for their clubs.
“One of the keys is to create a culture like we had with the under 21s where playing for England is something to look forward to and they feel relaxed enough to perform at their very best,” Southgate said.
Southgate’s next match will be a friendly in Germany, followed by a World Cup qualifier against Lithuania.
“We mustn’t take qualification for granted, we have to keep our eye on the ball, we have not always qualified,” Southgate said. “Our aim is to go beyond what we have done in the last couple of tournaments.”
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