Gareth Southgate insists he could not be prouder to be an Englishman as he prepares to become just the second manager to lead the nation into a major tournament final.
The Three Lions face Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley on Sunday evening after coming from behind to see off Denmark in extra-time of their last-four clash.
It will be the first time the men’s England side have played in a major final since winning the World Cup in 1966 – a gap of 55 years.
Southgate will follow in the footsteps of Sir Alf Ramsey by taking charge for such an occasion and the honour has not been lost on the 50-year-old.
“I guess for me it hasn’t really totally registered because I’m not reading those front pages and I’m not tuning into those bulletins,” he said when asked about bringing so much joy to the nation.
“But I’m noticing the journey to the stadium – the tooting of the horns, the flags on the cars, so I’m starting to get a feel of exactly what’s going on and I suppose in the back of my mind I know what’s going on but I’ve tried to put it to one side really and keep focused on what we’re doing.
“But to be able to hear Wembley like it was tonight and to know how that will have been around the country is, yes, it’s an honour.
“Because we’re a special country, we are historically an incredible country and I know I couldn’t be prouder to be an Englishman.
“I can’t be prouder to have the opportunity to lead my country so to bring happiness at this time where it’s been so difficult for this period is a very special feeling.”
Southgate is often a calm character as he thinks over his next tactical move on the touchline but there was an outpouring of emotion when he acknowledged the England fans at full-time.
“When I was playing I had that sort of relationship with the fans at the clubs I was at. I suppose it was everybody’s emotion,” he said.
“I knew how much that would mean to everybody to be able to be here tonight. The crowd were incredible in giving us that energy throughout the game and, yes, it was a special moment for all of us.
“So I’m not embarrassed about losing my head a little bit in that moment.
“Once you step off the pitch you know you’re into the preparing for the next game and everything that goes with that so to be able to have that moment on the pitch with the fans for me is always the most special part.”
If they are to win the European Championship for the first time, England will have to beat Italy – a side which has not tasted defeat since September 2018.
The Azzurri beat Spain on penalties in their semi-final and Southgate is expecting a tough test from the 1968 European champions, especially given England have 24 hours less to prepare.
“It is definitely a bit of a disadvantage but we have to find the best way of dealing with that,” he said.
“In terms of Italy, I think what Roberto (Mancini) has done and the way they’ve played the last couple of years, the record speaks for itself in terms of the wins, the small number of goals conceded. The style of play has been exceptional.”
England fell behind in the semi-final for the first time in the tournament, Mikkel Damsgaard’s fine free-kick putting Denmark ahead on the half-hour.
But a Simon Kjaer own goal soon levelled the scores with Harry Kane turning home the rebound from his saved penalty in the first period of extra-time to send England through.
There was little drama in the closing stages as Southgate’s side saw out the game with relative ease as he praised his players for getting the job done.
Aaaaaand stretch… 🧘♂️— England (@England) July 8, 2021
“Yes, I think the players have learned a lot over the last three or four years,” he replied when asked if England have learned to become streetwise.
“We used to talk to the Under-21s about that – it was one of the biggest areas we had to improve upon – and we still can be better at it because the first five minutes of that second half of extra-time.
“We had the man advantage (after Mathias Jensen limped off) and didn’t really keep the ball well enough. There was opportunities to keep the ball far better than we did.
“But we’d worked it out and the players had worked it out, they did that really well and we have got the technicians to be able to do it.
“We weren’t perfect, I think we deserved the win on the amount of chances we created and some of the attacking play but I guess it was never going to be perfect with so much at stake.”
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.