Everyone loves a redemption narrative; Jesus Christ, Alhamdulillah, riboino she eilom and by the power of Greyskull, billions of us believe that life is precisely that. So it’s not hard to enjoy the redemption narrative of Gareth Southgate who, as an England player, missed the decisive penalty in the semi-final of Euro 96 but who has now, as an England manager, presided over the first shoot-out victory since the quarter-final of that same competition.
In 1996, lad culture was at its height, itself a derivation of English football’s big man culture. Philosophically, this was underpinned by tenets which asserted the importance of performative shouting, imperviousness to cold, enjoyment of violence and pain but a hatred of cheating – “cheating” defined to exclude heavy tackles, niggly tackles, snide tackles and bullying the referee. This attitude is exemplified by the ill-feeling towards Diego Maradona: 32 years after his two goals for Argentina eliminated England from the 1986 World Cup, members of that England team are still fuming because he scored a goal with his hand. The tackles to which they subjected him before that do not seem to matter, nor a big goalkeeper allowed to use his hands getting outjumped by a shortarse trying to disguise that he was using his. Big men play fair.
The England team of 1996 was similarly not behind the door when it came to alpha-male exhibitionism and self-mythologising self-importance. But when it came to that penalty shoot-out against Germany, Southgate, a defender making his seventh international start, was permitted to take the first sudden-death kick, while the team captain – who showcased his fibre via a pre-match wall-headbutting routine, along with a senior pro who dubbed himself “the Guvnor” – relaxed on the halfway line.
There have been various failures since then, the most significant coming in 2004 and 2006, by the “Golden Generation”. Though the intensity of their manliness was not quite the same, and though they might have been better managed, it is still fair to say that the dynamic of the team – how the players combined, on and off the pitch – was hampered by big man ethos. Players from rival clubs stayed rivals, the team was picked according to status not suitability, and the style of play remained as rigidly, uncompromisingly English as the rest of it. As a consequence, an unbelievably talented group of players achieved the cube root of buggerall.
The current collective are very different. Because it does not comprise individuals who have achieved epochal things at club level, competing against one other, egos and rivalries are not so intense. And because failure is now expected, nor is the pressure from the press. But in temperament, they seem very different nonetheless, absolutely devoid of “characters”, “leaders” and “leaders of men”.
And yet more or less, one way and another, things are working. What is most evident about the squad is how much they are enjoying themselves. Off the pitch they all get on, a unity equally obvious on it, all the more so because they are playing a style in which they believe. So when they were chasing a goal against Tunisia, they did not panic as time ran out but kept to the plan, and, when Colombia tried it on they held it down. When they conceded a late equaliser, they hung in there at the start of extra-time. And when their heads were clear, they managed to raise it again.
Then, the dreaded penalties. It is true that England’s opponents were not 90s Germany, all-time experts in the art, but it is also true that things felt different. No longer does English football labour under the misapprehension that penalties are “a lottery”, instead recognising a test of technique under pressure. So serious time was spent practising the same kicks over and over again because, nerdy and wimpish though it may sound, by amazing coincidence, the more you do things, the more confident and competent you get at them. Consult England’s set-piece goals for further reassurance on this point.
Credit for this must go to Southgate, who has created an environment in which the players feel relaxed and free to express themselves; he believes in them so they believe in him. And their relentless positivity, their obvious enjoyment of life – so different to toxic masculinity that is responsible for so many of the world’s ills – has transmitted to the wider public. It is not going to resolve structural racism, sexism and inequality, but it might make people see things differently; it is not going to heal schisms based on all that, but it has already allowed for communal ecstasy.
None of this is to say that things are perfect. England can play better than they did against Colombia, and Southgate’s negative substitutions invited pressure on a defence ill-equipped to handle it. But whatever happens from here, the national team is all but free of the corrosive 90s culture; now that England have finally won a penalty shoot-out, all that’s left to do is get rid of that fucking waistcoat.