The Manchester Hilton on Deansgate seems a banal setting for an English revolution but then the city which once hosted meetings between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels does have a history of inspiring radicalism.
And the four-star hotel may prove to have played host to the summit that could make 2019 the year that a senior England football team finally bring home some silverware, albeit the inaugural UEFA Nations League rather than a World Cup.
It was at the Hilton last October, before Manchester United’s Champions League match against Valencia, that England manager Gareth Southgate sat with his assistant, Steve Holland, and contemplated the hard truth that their summer of love was fading into autumnal gloom.
A triumphant summer saw England reach the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia
Southgate had returned a hero after leading England to a World Cup semi-final for the first time since 1990. Yet amid the euphoria, some home truths were beginning to emerge. His England team had missed a huge opportunity against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. They had then been outplayed for long periods in a 2-1 loss to Spain at Wembley in their first game back in September and Switzerland had pinned back their 3-5-2 system in the first half of a friendly game at the King Power Stadium in Leicester.
Southgate and Holland sensed the trust they had gained from the players over 18 months of progress was waning. The team were now struggling to keep the ball in the system they had devised. ‘The players had lost a bit of faith in their possibilities to recover the ball,’ said Holland.
‘Despite the work we had done, we hadn’t really transferred that on to the pitch. High-quality opponents could pin our wing backs back. Croatia did that well, Spain did that, Switzerland had done it in the first half.’
Southgate had seen his beloved 3-5-2 struggle against Switzerland back in September
Half-time against Switzerland had brought about a crisis meeting with Southgate, Holland, the increasingly influential strikers’ coach, Allan Russell, and goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson. The problems were clear and in Manchester, with more time and space to think, they designed another system, a 4-3-3 that allowed the team to be more flexible.
That said, they had to travel to Croatia and Spain and play probably the best two teams in the world at keeping possession. What looked good in theory might prove woefully inadequate against the likes of Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos.
England’s training ground at the World Cup in Russia was in Repino, the beachside Baltic village 100 miles from the Finnish border. The stadium had one training pitch and a separate penalty area to practise set pieces. ‘So we had three penalty spots on which to practise,’ said Holland. ‘During the time we were there all three had to be dug up, replaced and returfed. We absolutely battered them.’
The penalty shoot-out against Colombia was proof of how much England had developed in 2018. On a balmy night in Moscow, in front of 30,000 frenzied Colombia fans, they exorcised the ghosts of England’s past. It was their first victory in a knockout game since 2006, their first penalty shootout win since 1996 and their first ever in the World Cup.
It would be unfair to cite luck. FA and technical director Dan Ashworth had a team working on everything from body language to the speed of execution of the strike in a dossier that would assume mythical proportions in the immediate aftermath of victory.
‘So many people contributed to that, within the analysis department of the FA through to the technical staff,’ said Holland. So when Southgate made substitutions, even when leading 1-0, bringing on Eric Dier and Jamie Vardy, it was with the shootout in mind. (In extra time, Rashford, another penalty taker, would come on).
Jordan Pickford stops Colombia’s forward Carlos Bacca’s penalty in the shootout in Moscow
Eric Dier moved into the list of five takers and slotted home the decisive penalty to win it
‘We had a list from one to 23 of the batting order to take penalties,’ said Holland. ‘As soon as the game ended, I handed the list to Gareth. It was: Kane, Rashford, Vardy, Henderson, Trippier. Vardy felt his groin and wasn’t comfortable so he came out… and Dier went from No6 to No5.
‘Harry is an experienced penalty taker and he had three different penalties, so we didn’t really interfere too much. Harry made the decision which penalty he took. Some of the others weren’t as experienced, so we perfected one penalty with them. They were very clear with where they were going.
‘Allan and Marge [Martyn Margetson] spent time with the keepers in the period between the final whistle and the start of the shootout, reminding them of the analysis work we had done on each of the kickers. You normally need your keeper to make at least one save if you’re going to win. Jordan managed to make that save.
‘When that final kick went in it was a great moment for the nation. For years we had experienced the worst way to lose; finally we had experienced the best way to win.
‘Compiling the list was huge because it gave us a reference and that affected choices with substitutions. The second aspect of it was rehearsing the roles and responsibilities of staff and players during that period from final whistle to shootout. The whole thing needs structure. Every aspect we had rehearsed.
‘Ultimately you can plan and plan but when you have 45 million people tuning in to watch and the player puts that ball on the spot, you can never really feel that moment. So the credit goes to the players. We gave them the best chance. But they deserve the credit. And I include Jordan [Henderson, whose penalty was saved] in that because his was every bit as good as one or two of the others. It went more or less where he had been practising — maybe a touch higher, but only a touch.’
‘Celebrate, good times, come on!’ pounded out of the sound system on the England team coach, parked in the stadium tunnel of the St Petersburg Stadium. Kool and the Gang’s classic might have seemed anomalous, as England had just lost 2-0 to Belgium in the third-place play-off. But this was the night the team could finally relax and enjoy what they had achieved.
At ForRestMix Hotel in Repino that night, the end-of-the-World-Cup party went on into the small hours. ‘Most stayed up late,’ says Holland. ‘I didn’t feel in a party mood because we had lost the game. But it was an opportunity for those who wanted to. The whole thing was an amazing experience, those 56 days together.’
But the days leading up to that play-off had naturally been the hardest. England had been 22 minutes from a World Cup final against Croatia and that opportunity may never present itself again. Reviewing a game in which their 3-5-2 system had been exposed for the first time had been painful.
Kyle Walker, Dele Alli, John Stones and Harry Kane look downbeat after losing to Belgium
‘We had a very inexperienced team who had never been in that situation before,’ says Holland.
‘We probably didn’t handle that as well as we could have. We stopped doing what we had done well throughout the tournament, which was trusting in our philosophy and controlling the game with possession.
‘We didn’t build from the back very well which meant we didn’t have as much of the ball so we were having to defend more. In the end, we weren’t quite ready to win it all.’
The year has unusually provided multiple highlights for this England team. But one of the most significant for 2019 was away from the World Cup. It came in the 11th minute of the game against Spain in Seville in October, when Dier challenged Ramos for the ball.
Southgate’s new 4-3-3 had an encouraging opening in a 0-0 draw against Croatia. Still, Spain away from home three days later looked to be a test too far. The opening exchanges had suggested that a Spain team still smarting from World Cup failure would school Southgate’s young charges.
But England were at least up for the fight. They pressed Spain high up the pitch. So when Spain tried to play out from their own penalty area through the iconic and physical Ramos, Dier refused to allow him. He not only pressed the player so he couldn’t pass out, he took the ball and the man in the type of challenge that, in another setting, might have been a marker of an old-school English approach.
It did earn him a yellow card but the significance was not in the physicality of the challenge. It was more an illustration that England were not resting on their World Cup laurels. And it proved a sign of something to come. The rest of the half would prove to be the best football England played all year, probably the best since the 5-1 win over Germany in Munich 2001.
Eric Dier’s hit on Sergio Ramos was an illustration that England were not resting on their laurels
A blistering first-half display suggested there was much more to come from this England team
Three goals in 22 minutes had them 3-0 up against a team who hadn’t lost at home in 15 years. Though they would be hanging on for a 3-2 win by the end, it was a watershed moment. ‘That was the game where everything kicked into place, especially in the first half,’ says Holland.
Two of the goals had come directly from passes out from Jordan Pickford, whose distribution, exemplary in the World Cup, was now matching the best in the world. Raheem Sterling (twice) and Rashford were the scorers, meaning England were no longer reliant on Kane. Kane was superb, linking up with team-mates, and England were scoring from open play, no longer merely a set-piece team.
‘Gareth and I have both been in football a long time and the moment you think you’ve cracked it — if you stand still — normally that’s when you get hit right between the eyes,’ says Holland. That rainy night in Seville suggested they had learned from the summer and there was more to come.
At 4am on July 4, 2018, the England party arrived back at the ForRestMix Hotel from Moscow after the midnight heroics of the shoot-out against Colombia. As usual, there was food to refuel but, though there was a warm-down session at 9am, no one felt like going to bed.
‘There was a big screen and they were just replaying scenes from up and down the country of the moment when the Eric Dier penalty went in,’ says Holland.
‘That, for me, was the stand-out memory. When you see so many happy faces, from Southampton to Newcastle, the sense of responsibility really dawns on you.
‘In some small way you personally have been part of this team that has been able to provide this happiness for people. That moment is frankly bigger than winning any football match.
After beating Colombia, players didn’t sleep and instead watched footage of the celebrations
‘We were not happy at not winning the World Cup but there is a bigger picture around it. And if we were to actually win something, God only knows what would happen. It would be like something we’ve never seen before and to be part of that would be worthy of existing.’
Come June, England will play in the semi-finals of the Nations League. It is not the World Cup. But if they put down a marker there, maybe they will have taken a small step towards that giant leap to win a major tournament.