The last rodeo perhaps for Gareth Southgate, and some of the players who have sustained the England manager’s change in the fortunes of the national team, will begin in June next year with one of the kindest draws the Football Association could have wished for.
The expansion of Uefa’s great tournament to 24 teams has taken the edge off what was once a 16-team sprint from the very start, and England’s group of Slovenia, Denmark and Serbia only serves to underline that. “You have to be very careful about assuming things when you see these draws,” Southgate offered politely post-draw, having also noted the merits of Aleksandar Mitrovic, the Serbia all-time leading goalscorer who took the Saudi Pro League gold this summer.
It can also be safely assumed that if England do not emerge from this group then it will have been the worst Euros since 2008, when Steve McClaren’s team did not make the tournament proper. Mitrovic has 13 goals in 13 league games for Al-Hilal, suggesting he is finding it even easier there than he did in his three seasons in the Championship.
Southgate will know that England have rarely been in a better position to win a tournament. If they win Group C, with the nearest rival Denmark, 16 Fifa ranking places below them, then they would not face a fellow group winner until the semi-finals.
Even the delayed Euro 2020, with the semi-finals and final at Wembley, did not present as great an opportunity. That came earlier in the cycle of development for England and the current side, the two most recent performances aside, looks like it is coming to the boil. Under Southgate the tournament record of semi-final, final, and quarter-final has been a huge improvement. The form of Harry Kane and the emergence of Jude Bellingham, means that Southgate has two of Europe’s leading players. Beyond is a group very close to that status in Declan Rice, Kyle Walker, Bukayo Saka, John Stones, and Phil Foden - with the promise that there may be more to come.
The quality of those who can no longer get in the squad – or will miss out now the limit is back down to 23 - will demonstrate how strong the pool of players has become. Even the third midfield starting place after Rice and Bellingham, which long seemed to be available, looks like it could now belong to a new England midfielder – and former England right-back – Trent Alexander-Arnold. His metamorphosis has become one of the great stories of the season. At last he looks like a fit.
This could yet be the last tournament for the England manager, who has a contract until December next year. There are players too who may declare on their international careers after next summer, and among them some who have been major figures: Walker, Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and perhaps even Stones. Raheem Sterling seems to have been retired as long as Southgate is manager.
The beauty of the modern English development system is that there are others from the younger generation already jostling for position, and there is a chance that some may do so before the summer. Too often in the past, England managers were obliged to hang on to superannuated stars well past their peak – or even recall them from retirement. That, mercifully, is no longer a problem.
European championships were much better when it was just 16 teams battling it out for eight quarter-final places. Post-1996, England’s record was pretty dismal until 2021 but at least the tournaments were intense. Uefa’s 55 nations do not have enough quality to sustain a truly engrossing 24-team competition. At Euro 2012, the last 16-team tournament, England were out at the quarter-finals stage by June 24 – by which time in Germany next summer they will not even have played their final group game.
If England win the group and reach the semi-finals next summer they could face either Belgium or France, both of whom have beaten England at the two World Cup finals at which Southgate has been in charge. If there is a group of death then it is Group B where Spain, Croatia and Italy have landed with Albania, who qualified as group winners. In Group A, where Scotland will play the opener against Germany, it looks dangerous for the malfunctioning hosts. Hungary and Switzerland make up the group.
The tournament feels more manageable than the immense distances fans must travel in Fifa’s next two World Cup finals – the first of which will be played in the United States, Mexico and Canada, and setting new records for the longest distance between two venues. All of England’s group stage will take place in three cities – Gelsenkirchen, Frankfurt and Cologne - within three hours’ drive of each other. Win the group and progress and England will stay in the same west German bubble – Gelsenkirchen, Dusseldorf, Dortmund.
If that is to be the route then beyond it lies Berlin and the final on July 14, deep into the summer. A pivotal tournament for this England generation and their experienced manager – and if it goes well, he may fancy one more shot at the big one.