Gareth Southgate has stressed the importance of humility in victory to his England squad and of not angering rival players or crowds as he urged them to seize every moment in the countdown to the Qatar World Cup, beginning with Sunday’s qualifier against Andorra at Wembley.
The manager was delighted at how his team overcame a hostile atmosphere in Budapest on Thursday to beat Hungary 4-0, one that was blighted by racist chants. But he lingered a little on the much-debated reaction to England’s first goal, scored by Raheem Sterling, when Declan Rice picked up one of the plastic cups that were thrown down from the stands and pretended to drink from it.
Rice’s action was caught by a photographer, the picture went around the continent and the England midfielder was praised for his defiance but Southgate gave the impression he would rather the midfielder had not offered up any potential ammunition.
“We needed to be a little bit careful in how our interaction with the crowd the other day was,” Southgate said. “We all recognise that certain things that happened weren’t acceptable but also we ran a little bit of a risk of inflaming some of those situations.
“The boys just have to have in the back of their minds that humility. We were playing well and we got a good result but let’s keep our professionalism, our focus. We’re going to have to play these teams again and we don’t want to give them any additional motivation with our actions.”
Southgate made the point to his players at the beginning of the this week that after this one there are five more international breaks before the finals in Qatar, which begin on 21 November next year. The penultimate break is scheduled for June, the final one for next September and Conor Coady, who will start in a much-changed lineup against Andorra, said it had taken him and his teammates by surprise. Southgate is ready to start Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield, a positon that he has previously indicated he sees him able to play.
The upshot is that even ties against minnows like Andorra assume greater significance: they offer opportunity for players to press or cement claims to a place in the World Cup squad. “It’s not only Andorra to me,” Coady said. “Whenever you get the chance to represent your country, it’s a huge moment. The mindset is always the same – to get better.”
Southgate was reminded that his first goal as an England player had come against Luxembourg in a Euro 2000 qualifier – in other words, similarly unheralded opposition. Each international is a chance to create memories and the FA are expecting a crowd of around 65,000, which is an illustration of the feelgood factor that has built around the team after their run to the Euro 2020 final. “If we want to be serious contenders for the World Cup we cannot waste a moment,” Southgate said. “We cannot miss an opportunity to improve.
“The teams that didn’t do so well in the summer will be licking their wounds and looking at everything. There’s a risk that they look harder for those opportunities to improve. If we have any complacency that would be an error. We’ve got talent and we have shown positive performances and earned good results. But that can disappear very quickly.”
Southgate mentioned that there would be a seven day lead-in to the finals, although he had experienced something similar when he could only call on the players who had contested the Champions League final one week before the Euros.
“We are aware of the schedule,” he said. “Our primary focus is to secure qualification but, in the background, we’re always making sure that plans are in place. In the past we were worried about preparing because it might bring bad luck. We’ve got to be bold and prepare as if we’re going to get there but then make sure that we get the performances right to ensure that we do.”
The Andorra game will be England’s first at Wembley since the penalty shootout loss to Italy in the Euro final and fan groups have prepared a banner to show their support for Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford – the players who missed their kicks and were racially abused on social media. Saka is expected to start but the other two are injured.
Sancho withdrew from the squad on Saturday with a minor ankle injury sustained in training that should not, according to the FA, keep him out of Manchester United’s game against Newcastle next Saturday.
“It’s hard to go back to the Italy defeat because it’s a real tough moment in everybody’s lives, not just their football lives,” Coady said. “The feeling in the dressing room was horrible, it’s something that I don’t want to remember for the rest of my life.
“We’re a very close-knit group, it’s like a club feeling and it was just natural the way we all came together around Saks, Sanch and Rashy. We love those boys to bits and to see what they went through after that game was horrible.”