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Southgate: “Against the very best, England came up short”

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England won over a ton of the haters and indifferent onlookers at the 2018 World Cup, as the Three (young) Lions made their unlikely run to the semifinals of the tournament in Russia.

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Gareth Southgate, who guided the squad with an average age of 25.6 years old, isn’t letting the feel-good factor, or the respectable accomplishments of the last month, cloud his vision, though. “Against the very best teams, we’ve come up short,” he said following Saturday’s defeat to Belgium in the third-place game. There is much work still to be done, if the current generation, which might just find itself dubbed a golden generation over the next few years, is to reach its potential — quotes from the Guardian:

“We are very realistic about the level we are. We’ve had a lot of praise, which has been nice, but also balanced with that a lot of reality as well. We don’t kid ourselves at all. We know exactly the areas where we hope to get better. We’re not in club football where we have a checkbook to buy new players. We have to coach and develop, and the players need a willingness to learn and improve, and they’ve shown that in the last seven weeks in particular. That continues, but we leave here having progressed a lot.

“It’s nice to reach a semi-final because that builds belief and gives momentum to the team. There’s some evidence that they can have success, and they can feel that and commit to the England shirt. But we need to keep improving.”

“We’ve finished in the final four, but we’re not a top-four team yet. Against the very best teams, we’ve come up short. But we’ve had a wonderful adventure and some experiences which will stand this group of players and staff in good stead for the future. We have to try to constantly evolve and improve. We’ve done that, particularly over the last eight months, and we’ve ended up having a brilliant adventure here.

“Every member of our party, players and staff, has enjoyed it immensely. That’s what we keep having to do: review how we play, how might we improve, what we can get better at. That’s what we will do.”

Despite the momentum and support England managed to create over the last four weeks, the fact that their tournament finished with back-to-back defeats could prove something of a blessing in disguise for Southgate and his coaching staff. A squad as young and ambitious as this one will only return hungrier, and with a chip on its shoulder, when they reconvene in September for UEFA Nations League action.

Walker: Southgate ‘backbone of this team; man’s a gentleman’

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Oh, the difference 24 months can make.

[ MORE: Deschamps: EURO heartbreak drives France to World Cup final ]

The entire footballing world could infer pretty safely that the vibe surrounding the England camp had changed massively between the time the Three Lions were eliminated from the 2016 European Championship — at the hands of Iceland — and Wednesday, when Gareth Southgate‘s side was defeated by Croatia in the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup.

Following Wednesday’s heartbreaking failure, Kyle Walker, who was in the squad and on the field when the full-time whistle blew and England were effectively embarrassed after losing in such hopeless fashion, spoke passionately of the 180-degree turnaround in terms of belief and support that he has witnessed over two years, and that he felt in the moments immediately following the end of extra time — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was there in France, in the Iceland game, and it was completely different to that. For them to still be singing when we’re seeing friends and families, chanting our names and singing the manager’s name, is completely different. And I think we need to take full credit for that because we’ve changed that.

“I think the football has brought the nation together, people are going to pubs and celebrating, and that’s what football should be about. It’s enjoyable, we all love to play the game and fans love to support it. So it’s hats off to us. It’s unlucky we couldn’t bring it home for them, but hopefully there’s time in the future.”

“There’s nothing better, when people are writing you off and saying, ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt,’ slagging people off, it’s kind of saying: ‘Well, there you go, have that back at you.’ But we do it for ourselves as well.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am to share the dressing room with these players. We’ve all grown up watching England, and to represent your country at a semifinal of a World Cup, there’s no better feeling.”

[ MORE: Mourinho: England needs to keep coaches for next World Cup ]

As for Southgate, to hear Walker tell it, there’s not a single person in the locker room that wouldn’t run through a brick wall for him.

“The man’s a gentleman. That’s the best way to describe him. He’s been in our shoes. He relates to us massively. He knows what to say at the right time. And he makes you feel like you’re the best player in the world. He gives you that confidence, and I think that he needs to take the most credit out of everyone of us.

“We’re the guys who are running on the pitch, but he’s the backbone of this team. He’s made sure that everyone has stuck together through good and bad moments, and made sure our feet stayed on the floor. I can’t put into words how much credit he deserves for this.

And to think, Southgate only wound up in the job — one he pretty openly and firmly stated he didn’t want — because Sam Allardyce incriminated himself in a newspaper sting operation after 67 days on the job.

Southgate was the England U-21 manager at the time. Fast-forward 22 months, and he’s a near-lock to receive a four-year contract and be tasked with leading his country through the upcoming EURO and World Cup cycles.

England’s Southgate: “I am immensely proud”

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England manager Gareth Southgate is very, very proud of his Three Lions team, and says the only thing that stopped them from a World Cup Final was relative inexperience.

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Croatia’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have been there, Southgate said, and England had not, so it was hard to know what was going to happen once Croatia leveled the score in Wednesday’s semi-final.

“I think they played well in the the second half and we lost a bit of control with the ball, and we started to go a bit longer,” Southgate said. “When you’re ahead in a huge game, and one that many of our players hadn’t played in before, nobody knows how you’re going to react until you’re in it.”

England finished second in its group to Belgium by virtue of a final group stage match loss that was absent key players for both teams (as will be Saturday’s third place game rematch).

After beating Colombia and Sweden, England’s supporters believed that “Football was coming home.” It hasn’t, but the full heart of its nation has returned to town.

“I am immensely proud by the way the players have played and we can see by the reaction of the supporters, they felt the same. It was difficult to say anything that will make them feel better at his moment. They have not experienced that before playing with England and it also shows that it can be a memorable experience playing for their country.”

“To become a winning team there are hurdles you have to overcame, and we’ve surpassed many of them.”

England ‘building belief’ not only for World Cup, but for long-term success

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Gareth Southgate is presently performing a complex balancing act: he’s simultaneously attempting to guide England into Sunday’s World Cup final, while being forced to stave off rising — and potentially crippling — expectations for his young squad, but also using his side’s trip to Wednesday’s semifinal as a motivational point for various iterations of the national team.

[ MORE: France edge past Belgium to reach World Cup final ]

Such is the task the manager must meet head on when the Three Lions suddenly — but expectedly — become one of the feel-good stories and most endearing sides at a major tournament. It’s an identity and mentality that Southgate and Co., have been working to forge over a number of years and tournaments at various youth levels — quotes from the Guardian:

“I’ve been involved in all the plans really, right through the age groups. To have seen our younger teams have success they have has been hugely rewarding.

“We know our academies at club level are producing really good players, technically good players. We made a lot of changes with the national teams that helped us be successful. We believe we have to continue doing that, to constantly evolve and improve. With this team, it’s the same. The experiences of the last few weeks, the milestones they’ve hit, will be a great reference point moving forward. The more big games we’re involved in, the more pressure situations they’re involved in and emerge from successful, the more belief it will build.

“We have a core group of young players in this squad we believe will take us forward, and others coming through the age-group teams with good experiences who have belief they can win, but also expectations that we should be in quarterfinals, semifinals and finals more regularly. That’s what we wanted to do with our younger teams. All of that work is great but you really have to achieve at senior level in the end for that to be fulfilled. And we have a great opportunity now to get to a World Cup final.”

As for what he expects from the Three Lions beyond this World Cup, Southgate firmly believes that “this team is nowhere near the level they’re going to be capable of”:

“Sometimes you have to go through difficult times as a team, and failures, to learn and to improve. There were a lot of young players involved in the team two years ago who suffered a huge disappointment, and we could have ignored that and tried to be positive and look to the future. But we felt it was important to learn from it, unpack it a bit, and find out why we’d gone so long without winning a knockout game.

“We’ve been fortunate the FA has backed us financially to bring in a lot of staff, experts in lots of fields: physical, medical, coaching, to offer good support for the players. We’ve planned really well, and learned as much as we can. We’re starting to see through the age groups some success because of that, but it’s an ongoing process. This team is nowhere near the level they’re going to be capable of, partly because of their age, but also because they’ll have more big-match experiences over the next few years. We are excited about the future, but we want to make the most of this opportunity as well.”

After so much humiliation, England a source of pride, unity

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SAMARA, Russia (AP) — So often the source of letdowns and embarrassments, England’s soccer team is a unifying force among players and the nation.

At least in some sections of the country riven by economic, political and social divisions that led to Brexit, reaching the World Cup semifinals is a welcome distraction from the charged atmosphere. It’s a chance to clamber onto traffic lights, fling beer in the air and toast the success of the footballers in an outpouring of delirium not witnessed across England since the last century.

For the first time since the 1990s, England is in the last four of a major tournament. England will play Croatia on Wednesday for a place in the final after beating Sweden 2-0 Saturday.

“The chance to connect everybody through football and to make a difference to how people feel,” England coach Gareth Southgate said, “that is even more powerful than what we are doing with our results. That is very special. I would imagine there is a big party at home. Not for us.”

There is still much work to do if England is to reach its first World Cup final since lifting the trophy on home soil at Wembley in 1966.

But Southgate believes he has instilled the humble mentality in the dressing room that is required to keep the journey going all the way to Luzhniki Stadium next Sunday. Humility has replaced the hubris that defined the celebrity-obsessed David Beckham-era where the furthest the team reached was the quarterfinal stage of any tournament. Just look back on how Harry Maguire, who headed in Saturday’s first goal, reported for England duty for the first time last year with his clothing in a black trash bag rather than designer luggage.

Ambitions appeared to be thwarted for so long by a culture of entitlement as England gloried in the hype and status of being the birthplace of soccer without backing it up with results. And as players started to collect millions in salaries from their clubs, commitment to the national team was called into question.

“We don’t have renowned world-class players yet,” Southgate said, “but lots of good young players who are showing on the world stage that they’re prepared to be brave with the ball, try to play the right way, have shown some mental resilience now.”

At the start of his tenure in 2016, Southgate realized he had to deliver an important message to his players: Any success with England will be greater than anything achieved with their clubs.

“They have been prepared to park their club rivalries at the door,” Southgate said. “We’ve talked about how important it is to have that spirit.”

Also, how to recover from adversity. One of the lowest points for English soccer came two years ago — days after that European Union referendum in Britain — when a team coached by Roy Hodgson was humiliated by Iceland.

“Under pressure they suffered,” Southgate said. “They will have days when they are not able to cope with things.”

But experiencing the misery at Euro 2016 as players — or as a fan in the stadium like Maguire —helped a Harry Kane-led England advance relatively serenely to its first World Cup semifinal since 1990, according to Southgate. England even managed to beat Colombia in the round of 16 on penalties, halting a run of five successive shootout losses at tournaments.

The victories in Russia are also reversing an anomaly. England hosts the world’s richest soccer competition — the Premier League — but hasn’t been able to produce a national team to match. Southgate was on the last England side to reach a semifinal, at the 1996 European Championship, when the team anthem was “Three Lions.” The “football’s coming home” lyric is back in vogue in Russia, ringing out from stadiums to bars among the few thousand fans who defied the logistical challenges to follow the team.

“We have a good balance and the team are together,” 53-year-old England fan Andrew Court said outside the stadium in Samara where Maguire and Dele Alli scored the goals against Sweden.

Southgate, though, is looking beyond the hollow “Football’s coming home” concept.

Reflecting a studious approach, the platform gained from his greatest day in soccer was used to deliver several powerful messages on Saturday. Above all, Southgate wants more Englishmen playing alongside the Premier League imports.

“The more remarkable thing is that we’re in a semifinal,” Southgate said. “We only have 33 percent of the league to pick from. So that is still a huge problem for us, and we’re playing some young players who are barely established at their clubs, never mind international careers.

“But we feel that they’re able to play the way we want to play, playing huge pride, playing with no lack of quality, showing the sort of mentality to work for the group,” he said.

And it’s a group that, Southgate emphasizes, reflects the diversity of England and cuts through the economic divide in England where so much wealth is centered in the south.

Southgate has singled out the less affluent northern towns where players like Maguire are from.

“All of these players come from different parts of the country,” Southgate said, “and they’ll be youngsters watching at home from the areas that they come from. They’ll be inspiring.”