You know what it’s like at the end of term; you’ve been working hard all year, the pressure’s on to finish everything, mark all the books and get everything organised before the blissful collapse of a few weeks’ holiday. You try to keep the energy high, to persuade your increasingly tired classes that every single piece of work counts, and to keep morale up with pep talks, gentle persuasion, the odd sanction where necessary and, hopefully, a fair few laughs along the way, if you’ve built that kind of relationship with them. Well, in my view, this time of year for England’s manager and his team is no different. It’s a desire for a final push, but in the end, you just do what you can to get things in order, to keep things going just a bit longer.
Of course, I don’t have the luxury of millions in the bank, and neither do my students (as far as I know). I could do with an army of physiotherapists to ease away the aches and pains, but I’m not exactly putting my body through the same thing Harry Kane is, so perhaps that’s a false parallel. What I can strongly identify with, though, is that desire to push through, to wring the best out of my students until the end.
But sometimes that’s just not possible.
Sometimes you just need to let it go.
Sometimes, you just have to phone it in. For your sanity, and the whole damned class.
To my mind, that’s exactly what happened last night. Yes, the defeat against Hungary was a shock, but these things happen. Yes, on paper we should have walked it, with a home crowd and the collective talents of team and manager. And yes, the fans were right to be frustrated, to a point. However, experimentation, taking risks and trying different things can be seen to be a positive. If, indeed, Gareth Southgate was aiming to get a sense of playing new combinations ready for Qatar, then surely he learned a lot last night.
And with learning, more often than not, comes failure. It was Samuel Beckett who said, after all, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
While the stakes for the England team are high, surely the Nations’ League is the perfect playground to learn that lesson, rather than Qatar in November? Surely there has to be some perspective on this one, terrible match, albeit within the context of a less than stellar campaign?
Gareth Southgate is the most successful England manager since Alf Ramsay. But how quickly people forget. Watching his team flounder in last night’s game against Hungary, seeing an exhausted Harry Kane struggle to connect with both the ball and his team, a weary Bukayo Saka putting in runs but finding his legs wanting, and a stalwart Kyle Walker trying his best to provide the solid defence he’s so known for, it felt like watching battle weary chargers staggering back from the Crimea after a disastrous assault. And on the touchline, every worry and every concern etched deeply into his features, their equally shattered general, trying to hold back the tide. Too stressed, too tired, knowing, as the game slipped away from him, that the penalties would be severe (no pun intended).
If this sounds hyperbolic and irritatingly short on technicalities, that’s not surprising. I’m no football expert. I teach English and I write romantic fiction for a living. But I can recognise exhaustion. I’ve taught for twenty years; it kind of goes with the territory. You know when your class is done. You know when to push, and when to lay off. And I’m sure, if Gareth had had the chance just to say ‘no, lads. Take the night off. Get an ice bath, read a book and sleep,’ then he might have done so. The requirements of this tournament pushed them all to the limit when they were already knackered from a demanding season. And yes, the easy argument is ‘well, they’re paid to perform at the top of their game’, but somehow, having seen the fatigue on display last night, that justification falls father flat. We all know there are eye-watering sums of money in the game; but there are also tired human beings.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only mother in the audience last night who, when Jude Bellingham’s nose met the heel of a Hungarian player, just wanted to wrap him in a blanket, give him an ice pack and send him to bed with a cup of tea. And seeing a red-eyed Harry Kane facing the media after the defeat, honourably calm and unswervingly loyal to a manager who deserves that loyalty, should remind us all that at the end of the day they’re human beings. Highly paid human beings, but human beings nonetheless.
And England fans should be as loyal to Gareth Southgate as his captain is. Yes, this wasn’t their greatest hour, and today Gareth was frank about how painful the defeat and the rabid criticism of the so-called ‘fans’ was. But, with his calm authority, his thoughtful processes and his years of experience, the team, and by proxy, the country, is in a safe but firm pair of hands. Without failure there can be no victory, and we’ve been spoiled as fans for the past five years under Southgate. If a few people disagree, then so be it, but please treat these men with the respect they deserve. At the end of the day, that’s the bare minimum they should expect.
Gareth Southgate has made these players connect with each other; that much is clear both on and off the pitch. He rebuilt the team from the ground up, and they clearly adore him. His own brand of care, patience, firmness and nurturing epitomises many of the virtues of both a great teacher and a great mentor, and he’s only in the middle of his time. To cut him off short now would be a travesty. England fans must put their trust in him; he’s earned it.
At the end of term, we all stagger to the finish, and look forward to the new year, albeit with a good chunk of time off in between. Are the England team and their manager really any different?