By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – There have been plenty of ‘nearly men’ in the annals of world soccer, nations with all the ingredients to deliver on the biggest stage but who ended up with just crumbs for comfort.
England under Gareth Southgate are the latest to own that unwanted label as they head to the Qatar World cup finals still saddled with ending an interminable wait for silverware.
The year 1966, when England won their home World Cup, has haunted a succession of managers from Ron Greenwood and Terry Venables to Glenn Hoddle and Fabio Capello.
None came as close to delivering what the nation craves as Southgate, whose side reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, where they lost to Croatia having led, and then the final of Euro 2020 at Wembley only to suffer penalty heartache against Italy.
They are getting closer and if the incremental pattern of progress continues, Southgate and his players will fly home from the Middle East with the trophy for an open-top bus parade that would bring the capital to a standstill.
It is a very big ‘if’ though.
Suddenly the air of expectancy around a squad led by Harry Kane and loaded with players who excel in some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs has been replaced by good old hope.
Since that defeat by Italy there is a distinct feeling that England have plateaued, that Southgate has become prone to over-thinking and that the whole adds up to rather less than the sum of the shiny parts.
In actual fact, the months leading into the World Cup have been a masterclass in how to lower expectations.
Since thrashing San Marino 10-0 to conclude a relatively smooth ride through a soft qualification group, England have gone six competitive games without a win for the first time since 1958 and there are question marks all over the pitch.
Until a late flurry of goals in a 3-3 draw with Germany at Wembley in a Nations League dead rubber in their last match before their opener against Iran in Qatar, England had gone almost six games without a goal from open play.
For all the midfield flair at Southgate’s disposal, the likes of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka, they are heavily reliant on Kane to score the goals.
He has 51 from 75 caps with Raheem Sterling (19), and Marcus Rashofrd (12) if selected, the only other members of Southgate’s squad in double figures.
In defence, especially in the centre, England have looked anything but solid with eight goals conceded in their last three games and Harry Maguire, a player to whom Southgate has remained unshakably loyal, having a torrid time.
And in midfield, Southgate’s preference for caution has tended to stifle the attacking threat his team should possess.
Southgate is contracted through to Euro 2024, but has gone on record as saying he will not overstay his welcome.
On paper, England have the potential for a deep run in Qatar, but it might need Southgate to allow his team to throw a little caution to the wind in the desert if they are to silence those who doubt their ability to finally deliver.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)