England recapture missing magic they thought they’d lost forever

When Gareth Southgate walked into the Wembley dressing room after England’s win over Ukraine, part of his message was more emotional than tactical. “I said to the players: ‘I love being part of this team.’ Because they are exceptional to work with,” he explained.

It was the more remarkable because Southgate could have relinquished his part in the team. In his previous match at Wembley, England went 2-0 down to Germany. An awful Nations League campaign was prompting Southgate to walk away after the World Cup. Instead, they fought back to draw 3-3 with their old rivals, were one of the better teams in Qatar and have made a terrific start to Euro 2024 qualifying. A fourth tournament cycle under Southgate seems certain to bring a fourth tournament.

England have regained the upbeat feel they lost in the troubled summer of 2022. Part of Southgate’s success has been in restoring the bond between players and supporters, in engendering a team spirit where previous England sides had been riven by factions or less than the sum of their parts. He enjoyed the grit they demonstrated to hang on to victory in Italy. “Although we weren’t satisfied with the second-half performance, the resilience shown when we battled with 10 men, I think the public will respond to that,” he said.

“I think it was important that we showed our hunger again immediately after the World Cup. It would have been easy to have a hangover from that, and it would have been possible not to get the level of performance we’ve had given the time and stage of the season, with lots of players carrying niggles and lots of players in the middle of an intense period of games. But they come here with a freshness and want to be a part of it.”

Part of his own renewed optimism stems from the eagerness and ability of the two youngest members of his starting 11. In a week when Harry Kane set a record, Jude Bellingham was the star turn in the first half in Naples and Bukayo Saka in the Ukraine game.

Southgate sometimes tries to avoid burdening his players with comparisons, but the teenager Bellingham’s maturity had him casting his mind back for one so young with similar qualities. “Maybe [Wayne] Rooney,” he said. “I remember one of his first games against Turkey at the Stadium of Light with the intelligence of where he was on the pitch. But in terms of personality and how he carries himself, Jude is in that bracket. The nice thing about him and Bukayo is they have that tremendous humility. They are totally reliable boys who want to improve.”

Jude Bellingham has the world at his feet after mature performances for England (AFP via Getty Images)
Jude Bellingham has the world at his feet after mature performances for England (AFP via Getty Images)

With his various post-match commitments, he almost certainly had not heard Bellingham’s own interviews, but the 19-year-old was underlining Southgate’s point. “When I’m playing I’m thinking about a million things and where I can be better,” said the midfielder, who has already reached levels many another can only envy.

The ambition that is apparent on the pitch is evident off it. Bellingham’s future feels discussed daily and he did not shy away from part of it. “The biggest dream and the biggest honour in football, I think, is to captain your country,” he said. “There’s a long pecking order that I highly respect and I’ll wait my turn.”

Certainly, Kane is unlikely to relinquish the armband in the short term. Yet it is a sign of Bellingham’s leadership gifts that he has captained Borussia Dortmund in a Champions League knockout tie, before his 20th birthday and ahead of several more experienced German players.

While Southgate spoke of the example his senior citizens set – “the back players, [Kyle] Walker, [John] Stones, [Harry] Maguire, people talk about us showing too much loyalty, blahdey blahdey blah, but they’re exceptional and fundamental to why we’re successful as a team,” – his second wind as England manager may have come from a second generation. Bellingham and Saka seem its figureheads. They could be better again by next summer. “That doesn’t just happen,” said Southgate. “But with their mindset, they’ve got every chance.”

The teacher in Southgate may be excited by the potential. He was a young captain himself, in his Crystal Palace days, and wore the armband for Aston Villa and Middlesbrough. Now he sees Bellingham and Declan Rice promoted from the ranks at relatively junior ages. He made Kane England captain before his 25th birthday. He was not about to tout either as the striker’s successor, but the thought may have occurred.

“The good thing about him and Declan is that they’ve already captained their clubs and that’s great for their experience of being a leader,” he said. “It puts them into situations that are slightly out of their comfort zone.” But, in their own ways, Southgate and Bellingham are very comfortable in the zone with England.