Gareth Southgate has warned his young side they must “raise the bar” set by previous generations of England teams if they are to end the long wait for success on the international stage.
England face Montenegro at Wembley on Thursday in their 1,000th fixture knowing that a draw guarantees qualification for Euro 2020 with a game to spare. A host of former players and managers will be in attendance to mark the occasion, with England’s current players set to wear their “legacy” number – a chronological record of their first cap similar to those used by England’s Test cricket team– on their shirts as part of the celebrations.
Several members of the 1966 World Cup-winning team will also be at Wembley and Southgate has admitted that the solitary success of Sir Alf Ramsey’s side more than half a century ago should provide an incentive for future generations to attempt to emulate.
“I suppose at the moment the win in the World Cup is the outlier whereas, in actual fact, historically, we looked at it as the benchmark,” he said. “We are a small island and the fact that even in rugby and cricket we’ve had a brilliant run. The rugby team – huge credit to them. And they’ve only managed to win once and, with respect, there are fewer countries that are capable of winning.
“So, it’s hard to win and that’s got to be our aim. We’ve got to now raise the bar for the next decades to make sure they are more successful than the previous ones. But we can’t have that arrogance that maybe we’ve had over the years that we have a right to be in those latter stages – we have to earn it. As a team and as a group of staff, we have to earn it.”
As well as the remaining members of the 1966 team, every former England captain and those players with 50 or more caps have all been invited to Wembley for the match. Leicester’s James Maddison and Fikayo Tomori of Chelsea are in contention to become the 1,245th player to represent the senior men’s team should they be selected by Southgate, who himself was player number 1,071.
“When we went to the National Football Museum last week, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going there but when you walk around it and see the history that you’ve been involved in, and you have an understanding that we’re talking over 100 years now …” he said. “So, it’s still only 1,200 players who have ever had the chance to do it. I think 20 managers, probably less. So as a kid, all I wanted to do was play for England. That was coming home from school and watching them play in ‘82 in the World Cup.
“Whenever I played I was always thinking beforehand: 56 million people or whatever it was in the country, you’re one of 11 standing there belting out the national anthem. What that meant to my family, to the school I went to, to the Sunday teams I played for, coaches I’ve worked with. So, you couldn’t be prouder, I thought, until you lead. And then you realise there’s an even more, I don’t want to say select group, but an even smaller group of people who have had that opportunity and that is an immense privilege.”
Southgate demurred when he was asked to name the best 11 players he played alongside for England, although he did admit relief not to be confronted by the selection dilemmas his predecessors faced. “Not a chance, not a chance,” he said when asked to name an XI of his teammates. “Most of them would get into the team we’ve got now, that’s for certain.
“These are the debates that you don’t want to get involved in. I’ve played with some of the greats of the last 25 years. If you looked at Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Gazza, it was hard enough to get four into a midfield that time, wasn’t it, without going through the other generations of players. It was a privilege to play with some outstanding players.”