ENGLAND have become a mirror image of their manager – and that’s the secret of their success under Gareth Southgate.
He was a nice guy as a player. You liked him and you respected him. And it’s the same with this team. You like them – and you have to respect what they are doing at the World Cup.
I remember speaking to Gareth just before he got the job full time in November 2016 and he told me he just wanted his players to play like they do for their clubs, with bundles of pace and energy.
He wanted them to enjoy themselves, to play with confidence and a smile on their faces. And that’s exactly what they are doing in Russia.
I’m not surprised he’s been so successful. He’s been there. He understands how these players feel.
couldn’t believe what a good player he was when I played with him at Aston Villa. He always set a high standard, even in training.
You could tell he was going to be a manager. I just never expected him to be England manager this soon. It’s normally an old man’s job.
But I think his age is one of his biggest assets. He can relate to the players because it’s not so long ago he was one of them, going through all the same issues.
He knows about the boredom of being away from home at a big tournament, and he’s made sure the camp is a happy place with plenty of entertaining stuff going on all the time. None of his players look bored, do they?
It’s a big advantage when you have been there before. He went through the agony of missing a big penalty for his country at Euro ‘96.
His players listen to him because he’s been through things like that. They respect him. You can see it in how they are with him. You’ve got to say it must have helped us win that shoot-out with Colombia in the last-16.
It’s like when a policeman goes into school to tell the kids about the dangers of drugs. They don’t listen. But if it’s a recovering addict, someone who’s been through the pain, you can bet they listen then.
Gareth was always someone as a player who made the new signings feel welcome and brought them into the group, and he’s doing the same thing with England.
It’s no coincidence everyone in the squad has played in this tournament except for the back-up goalkeepers. Gareth obviously feels that’s important having not got on the pitch himself at the 2002 World Cup.
He knows what it feels like to go to a big tournament and not play, and he’s seen what it does to team-mates too. He doesn’t want any of his players to feel left out like that. He’s fostered a team spirit.
You can see his players like him. Even the ones who haven’t played much are hugging him after matches. There’s an art to that. It isn’t easy.
Some people thought he only got the job because he was an FA ‘Yes Man’. But he has made some tough decisions, and got them all right.
He eased out Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart, and he has stuck by Raheem Sterling in this tournament. He has stuck by his beliefs despite all the pressure. I like that. It shows strength.
He’s never taken the easy way out, and he never did as a player. When he played he would leave it all on the pitch. I think that’s rubbing off on his players.
You could rely on him as a player and you can rely on him as a manager now. He’s doing an amazing job.
He will need a bit of luck to go all the way. But I really don’t see how Croatia beat us. They were dead on their feet at the end of extra time against Russia. They could barely move.
They have just played 120 minutes twice back-to-back and gone through the drama of penalties. It’s mentally draining.
They will have to go for it early because if they are not beating us with 30 minutes to go – there is only going to be one winner at that point.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are probably the best midfield partnership in the tournament and they will have a lot of the ball.
But they are also wide open. Sometimes one of them pops up on the wing, and they often leave a big gap between each other. England can exploit that.
There is a lot of pace in this team with Sterling, Jesse Lingard and the wing backs. That will cause them problems.
Dejan Lovren won’t have slept well about facing Harry Kane again either. Kane has given him the runaround enough times when Spurs have played Liverpool.
He even got subbed once before half time playing against him.
I think our subs will be important too. Gareth needs to use them well. Marcus Rashford could come on and make a difference.
But there are plenty of options there. A lot of pace on that bench. He won’t weaken his team by bringing a sub on. That’s a big advantage.
Maybe this is the game that Sterling finally comes alive. He’s a good player, makes good runs in behind, and terrifies defenders with his pace.
He just needs a goal – and maybe this is the game where he scores the winner. He deserves it.