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England once feared trips to Prague and Sofia - now Southgate relishes them

England once feared trips to Prague and Sofia - now Southgate relishes them

10/10/2019 at 12:46Updated 10/10/2019 at 15:35

England are going to qualify for Euro 2020. They may not have done it already but they will.

Even when Kosovo took a shock lead at St Mary's through Valon Berisha, no England fan who has watched even a few minutes of Gareth Southgate's side in the last two years would have worried that this might be turning into a Steve McLaren-esque campaign.

For starters, this group has been significantly more kind to them than Group E under McClaren, when England were plonked alongside Croatia, Russia and Israel, all of whom caused them endless problems.

There were so many iconic moments in that campaign, most notably the Paul Robinson airshot and McClaren's umbrella, but the intangible aspect that dominated their efforts to qualify for Euro 2008 was fear.

McClaren ensured no England coach would ever be allowed an umbrella again

McClaren ensured no England coach would ever be allowed an umbrella againReuters

It saw him beat out the likes of Sam Allardyce and Martin O'Neill in the race for the England job, which he was only offered after Luiz Felipe Scolari turned it down: the Brazilian felt the job was not worth the scrutiny. Having previously been Brazil boss, he knew a thing or two about public pressure.

McClaren meanwhile had always been under the radar. He had been assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson, helping put together a great Manchester United side, and credited with an influential role in the treble-winning side.

He was drafted into the England set-up as a coach too, balancing both roles, before finally getting the top job at Middlesbrough.

Simply put, McClaren had always been the bridesmaid, and a fine one at that. From Ferguson he had learned the role fear could play in a team - fear of failure, fear of a manager, fear of letting team-mates down, fear of not living up to history - and how it could be used to positive ends. At Boro, there was nothing to fear. Repeatedly, they thrived when they had nothing to lose. From a psychological point of view, McClaren had all the tools to equip his England players correctly.

Yet the squad were crippled by fear, torn apart by cliques and hounded by the tabloid media. The pressure of trips to Tel Aviv, Moscow and Zagreb were too much for a side uncertain of their direction, their incentives or their goals, and it all culminated in a dreadful performance in front of a soaked, apathetic 88,091 fans. The boos at full-time, confirming England's first failure to qualify for a major tournament since the 1994 World Cup, probably still ring in McClaren's ears on quiet nights.

When he left Boro, McClaren's replacement was a surprising one. Having made his last professional appearance in the UEFA Cup final, Southgate stepped up to the top job. In terms of paths into management, he could not have had a more different route than McClaren, who had spent a decade as an assistant before moving one office down. Southgate didn't even have a UEFA Pro Licence.

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Just 10 years ago, these away games - both in eastern European cities with a couple of days of each other - would have been viewed as potential banana skins by a manager. They might have called up a couple of experienced heads to try to settle the nerves of the younger lads, who would surely be unable to cope with the atmosphere and intimidation of playing in Prague or Sofia. They would have set up to play robust, possession football and wait for the chances to come, nervously edging closer and closer to the dreaded 0-0 draw.

But Southgate's method will not be that. Rather than a group of players who still wear their club colours underneath the Three Lions, he has a squad who have respect and genuine friendship as their unifying quality. They are all there on merit too - there is no room in this England set-up for reputations. Previous performances might earn you one reprieve, but they will not earn you too. You only need ask Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to determine the veracity of that rule.

Alli knows the full extent of Southgate's harsh but fair selection policy

Alli knows the full extent of Southgate's harsh but fair selection policyEurosport

A bit like Roger Federer, whose ruthlessness against lesser opponents comes from his desire to play the perfect match of tennis, this England team have an idea in their head of what their best performance should look like. On their day, they can beat anyone in the world - and they will try to produce that performance every time.

Previous England managers would have seen this group, full of intrigue and mystery, as a street-fighting exercise, a set of games they must trying to box their way through, ducking and diving. Southgate will not. Every game is a step closer to Euro 2020. Every trip a chance to achieve perfection.

Fear? Southgate's men hardly know the meaning of the word.

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