Gareth Southgate has challenged his vibrant young England side to build on a year to remember after they clinched a place in the Nations League semi-finals in dramatic style.
Just over a year ago, England’s qualification for the World Cup was greeted with yawns and a barrage of paper aeroplanes from fans disillusioned by decades of underachievement.
But Southgate’s team won back their place in the nation’s hearts over the course of a remarkable 2018 that saw them reach the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1990.
Although that World Cup run ended with an agonising extra-time loss to Croatia, Southgate and his players have refused to be defined by failure in the way that their more vaunted predecessors in the Three Lions shirt often were.
So when Andrej Kramaric gave Croatia the lead against the run of play in the second half of Sunday’s winner-takes-all shoot-out at Wembley, it was a coming of age moment for England’s prodigies.
They rose to the challenge in impressive style as Jesse Lingard came off the bench to equalise with 15 minutes left before captain Harry Kane poked in the 85th-minute winner.
Kane and his team-mates celebrated joyously as Wembley roared in delight and a jubilant Southgate punched the air on the touchline.
The harmonious scene was a fitting finale to England’s year of redemption and a far cry from the 1-0 win over Slovenia in October 2017 that ensured they would qualify for the World Cup.
That uninspiring display came while Southgate’s revolution was still taking shape, played out to a soundtrack of bored fans cheering when the paper aeroplanes they were launching from the stands made it to the pitch.
Slammed as “lifeless, uninspired and mediocre” by one match report after the Slovenia game, England went to the World Cup with expectations at an all-time low.
But Southgate was gradually winning the hearts and minds of his players with his astute man-management and progressive game-plans.
The modest England manager credits his squad for keeping a humble approach amid all the recent plaudits, all the while keeping their focus on the next opponent.
“You can only have that consistency if you work on things every day and have the humility to go back to work,” he said.
“The World Cup was far bigger [than the Nations League], but you have to look at the next challenge. This was a great opportunity to test ourselves against top teams.”
Even that drab Slovenia match foreshadowed the revival stirring beneath the surface as it was a late Kane goal that sealed the points.
Fast forward 13 months and another last-gasp Kane winner produced far more euphoria.
“He is the best goalscorer in the world. You are always loath to take off a player of that ability,” Southgate said.
“His hold-up play, as well as the goals he brings, is critical. He is so hungry to lead the team even further.”
Southgate’s commitment to allowing England’s young talents to express themselves has paid rich dividends with Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Ross Barkley, Ben Chilwell and Joe Gomez all delivering mature contributions to England’s success.
Having established England as a force to be reckoned with, Southgate’s next task is to maintain their progress, with an eye on ending their wait for a first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup.
He believes the momentum England have established on and off the pitch will prove invaluable as they head into a period that includes the start of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign and then the Nations League Finals.
“Next year now looks like a really exciting time to be involved with England,” Southgate said.
“That feeling around the team is really powerful and we have to build on that. Everybody who has played for us wants to be part it.”
Displaying the self-depreciating touch that has won him so many admirers, Southgate laughed off suggestions that he has given England their pride back.
“We may be a new England but we scored from a long throw and a free-kick, so maybe nothing changes!” he smiled.