25 years after missing the penalty that saw England crash out of Euro ‘96, Gareth Southgate finally got redemption over Germany. The boss once again did things his way and became the first England manager since Sir Alf Ramsay in 1966 to beat Germany in a knockout match.
“He has had a brilliant journey,” Stuart Pearce, who comforted Southgate after he missed that infamous penalty, tells The Sportsman. “He is almost unflappable in many ways, he doesn't fly too high and get too excited. He doesn't get too downcast and that is a great trait to have. I can assure you if you are involved in football for any duration of time.
“He is an outstanding ambassador for our country and our profession I think and I've said that way before this tournament, way before the result against Germany. But the important thing in Gareth's mind now, I can assure you this, he will be disappointed if he doesn't get us to the final and maybe win the final. He really will.
“Well done in the group stages, well done against Germany, but he has generated this squad of players into a winning machine that doesn't concede goals now. That can interchange players from the bench, that can interchange formations and he has been responsible for that and it has taken him a number of years to do so, and people were doubting him and doubting whether he had the credentials to be doing the job that he is doing.
“I'm immensely proud of what he has achieved and we are just fortunate to have him at the helm of the England national team.”
One of Southgate’s quotes after the 2-0 win pulled on the heartstrings of every fan watching on, as he looked up at the big screen to see former England goalkeeper David Seaman celebrating.
“I was looking at the big screen and I saw David Seaman up there. For the teammates that played with me, I can’t change that [the penalty miss], that is always going to hurt. But what is lovely is that we’ve given people another day to remember and now we’ve got to go and do it in Rome.”
For Pearce, who scored his penalty in that ‘96 shootout having missed at Italia ‘90 against the Germans, this comment just sums up Southgate as a human being.
“It is probably the mark of what he is there,” Pearce says. “It was a look back at the experiences he had as a player. I think he has taken those experiences and not harked on about them but utilised them to the strength of this young group of players that he is working with.
“But more importantly, it is about creating history, it is about the next game and Gareth delivered the next game yesterday and delivered a great performance and he is acutely aware we all get judged on what we do next rather than what we have done in the past.
“The past takes care of itself, people have fond memories or bad memories. Gareth has used the bad memory to his advantage and I think everything he does, it is not centred around his playing career but he has learnt really valuable lessons and he has taken them forward to empower this group of players now.”
This win, England’s first over a major nation in the knockout stages in recent memory, has opened up the draw in their favour. Ukraine lie in wait in the quarter-finals, but this win does more to Southgate’s side than simply take them into the last eight. “I think it is a massive psychological barrier that we have overcome in regards to the squad,” Pearce, who was part of two squads that reached the semi-final stage, says.
“If the squad needed a convincer that they are good enough to win this trophy then yesterday's performance was that. They look a very confident outfit, they've got a great togetherness. You can see that from the outside they enjoy each other's company. We scored the first goal and the subs are warming up and when you see the joy on the face of someone like Phil Foden, and various subs there, that tells you everything about the togetherness of the squad.”
Matching the Germans 3-4-3 formation was the key to England’s success and Southgate managed the game perfectly, bringing Jack Grealish off the bench to stretch the German defence. However, it has been the back line that has stolen the show so far this tournament, with England yet to concede a goal in the competition.
“I thought Kyle Walker offered really good insurance with his pace as well and the whole of the back three done extremely well, the goalkeeper once again when he was needed made a couple of outstanding saves that kept us in it,” Pearce says.
“Raheem Sterling - incredible. There was a clamour to put him out the team at the start in some quarters. Arguably over four games he has been our most consistent player, so credit to him for that but the back line has been the one that has impressed me the most. That was the question mark at the start of this tournament we spoke of, are we good enough to keep the ball out the net - at this moment in time the answer is yes.”
As a West Ham coach, Pearce gets to work with Declan Rice daily - so was he as concerned as we were when the defensive midfielder, up against Toni Kroos, was booked early on?
“When he got booked so early on in the game I was concerned, I've got to say, his reaction to getting booked was fantastic,” Pearce says. “The rest of the game he was exemplary. He didn't let it affect his game at all, he didn't let it affect the way he played the game, he didn't dive in stupidly.
“Obviously I work with him on a daily basis at the club and it is really good for me to see the mental strength that he showed after that incident. I was really pleased for him and that is probably why he has made such a progression in the game, going back to his debut at West Ham, he made the odd mistake but his reaction to making mistakes is fantastic and once players are like that and have got that mentality you know they are going to evolve and get better.”
As one of the 41,000 fans inside the stadium, with ‘Three Lions’ being reverberating around Wembley, memories of Euro ‘96 came back to Pearce, but he is keen to let this group of players make their own history.
“There were [memories of ‘96], but the really good thing for me is this group of players are creating their own history. It is really nice….When they did a lap of honour after the game had finished just the togetherness of the group you could see it there for all to see and that is really good to see going forward.”