Gareth Southgate has admitted his tenure as England manager could end after the World Cup should his team’s poor form result in failure in Qatar.
Southgate, 52, has a deal with the Football Association until 2024, after the next European Championships, but he accepts his contract will not protect him from the sack if his team fall short with their performances and results.
England face Germany on Monday night in their last fixture before the World Cup having failed to win in their previous five matches in the Nations League. Their only goal during this cycle of the competition has been a Harry Kane penalty against Monday's opponents when they played in June.
Southgate was jeered off by supporters after Friday’s defeat in Italy and has called for unity to help his team return to the displays that saw them reach the Euro 2020 final just 14 months ago, before results turned and questions have been asked of the manager’s future.
“I am not foolish,” said Southgate. “I know ultimately I will be judged on what happens at that World Cup.
“Contracts are irrelevant in football because managers can have three, four, five-year contracts and you accept that if results are not good enough it is time to go your separate ways. Why would I be any different? I am not arrogant enough to think that my contract is going to protect me in any way.”
The FA have shown unwavering support to Southgate, whose record during his six years in charge has been taking the team from the depths of the defeat to Iceland to reaching the World Cup sem-final in Russia, then losing on penalties to Italy at the Euro final last year.
“I am absolutely appreciative of that (FA support),” added Southgate. “But of course we understand how the mood changes with the results and has changed. I am realistic about that and I will be judged on what we do in Qatar and I am perfectly happy to be judged in that way. History is history and you are judged on the next match and the next tournament.”
Southgate’s team will be wearing their away red strip against Germany on Monday in the first fixture at Wembley since the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen handed Bobby Moore the Jules Rimet Trophy when England, wearing red, won the World Cup in 1966 at Wembley. Players will also wear black armbands, a wreath will be laid by the FA and there will be a minute silence in her honour.
But fans are also expected to express how they feel about Southgate’s team with 56 days before England’s World Cup opener against Iran.
'What happens to me is irrelevant, frankly'
“We can only succeed if we’re all pushing in the same direction, and we’ve all got that positive energy towards doing well,” said Southgate. “What happens to me is irrelevant, frankly. It’s about the team. The most important thing is the team and the success of the team.”
He is poised to stick with his three-man defence despite criticism of it being negative, with Luke Shaw pushing for a start
On sticking with three centre-backs, Southgate added: "We’ve had great success playing in both formations, and probably more big match success with three at the back because of the two tournaments we have been to. I understand externally people will fixate on it but there are so many nuances within football, that teams who play four at the back nominally build with three at the back most of the time now anyway."
Southgate also highlighted Joshua Kimmich as the player who organises matches for Germany and says England do not have an equivalent.
"In terms of the profile of players, we cannot buy somebody, we cannot generate somebody - we have got to make the most of the players that we have. That’s what we try to do - we try to find different ways of building from the back to allow us that lack of a playmaking pivot," he said.
While England are relegated from the top tier of the Nations League and the match is effectively a dead-rubber, he still needs his team to prepare for Qatar in their last match before flying to the Middle East.
“We have to look after the players. two-day turnarounds are not ideal really. We have a squad with a lot of caps so we still have to make sure we are not wasting opportunities to look at things but we are honing in on a World Cup and we don’t have any more matches after this. So there is a greater emphasis on trying to bed things in,” Southgate said.
Raheem Sterling, meanwhile, insisted there was no need to panic heading into the World Cup. He also said players should take responsibility for their performances following the jeering of Southgate.
“Since the manager has come in he has always tried to make the environment calm for us so we can do what we do on the field,” Sterling said. “After the summer we came away and had a look at ourselves and none of us were proud. Personally it is not for Gareth to shoulder the blame. We have players that can take responsibility as well and it starts with these performances. We are not there to partake, we want to win things.”
Sterling: 'England must block out the noise to perform at World Cup'
By Mike McGrath
After receiving the full support of Gareth Southgate during his darkest times as an England player, Raheem Sterling was happy to return the compliment for his manager. The Chelsea forward knows how it feels to be jeered by his own supporters, saying that he dreaded international duty during that period.
As he sat on the sofas at Tottenham’s training ground, a broad smile spread across Sterling’s face when he was reminded about how quickly perceptions change in football. It was barely a year ago that England fans were singing Sweet Caroline after a historic Euros win over Germany, their first against them in a knockout match for 55 years.
They face the same opponents on Monday after five matches without a win and concerns over where they will score their next goal heading into the World Cup in two months. Sterling believes the key to turning it around is blocking out the outside noise, which is easier said than done when criticism is levelled.
His experience led to him labelling himself the “Hated One” after getting targeted by England fans, but he knows it can be turned around too. In his case, after sacrificing himself at the last World Cup, he inspired victory against Spain in Seville as the tide started to turn.
“I remember coming with the national team and there was a period that when I first came into the squad it was really enjoyable and there was a period where I actually dreaded coming,” he said.
“It was Spain away, it was a moment when I scored, then after that my mentality was ‘OK, no matter if it’s good or bad, I need to just focus on myself and not listen to what the outside world was saying’. That’s definitely been something that’s put me in good stead. Not just here with the national team. But away from here in football as well.
“That’s a message that can definitely go with the squad here in the next couple of months. We know there will be noise, and we really need to block it out if we are going to do well in this tournament.”
'Southgate is up for the challenge'
Sterling describes football as “brutal”, which seems accurate when a team and manager are elevated to the status of national heroes in one year, then jeered off the pitch the next. It was Sterling’s opener against the Germans at Wembley that got the party started.
“Of course, football is brutal at times,” he said. “That’s why we love it. We’re not here to complain. Yes it was a great tournament last summer but once you produce like that, people want more, they expect more.
“Then you put results like this one [against Italy] on the table, of course they’re going to be asking questions. For me, they are right to ask these questions, but it’s for us internally as a team and a collective to change that and make people realise we are the real deal.”
Sterling repeated the phrase that there was no need to panic, to the point nerves were sensed. There have been frank conversations in the dressing room about how they can improve and finally find the net. But he also spoke highly of Southgate and the environment that he has created, where players can express themselves without fear.
“Of course it’s not nice to see any of your colleagues, or managers, getting criticised. But we know what it is to play at this level, I think he knows what it is to manage at this level, to be an England manager, and we as players know exactly what that comes with. It can be one or two results and that whole narrative can change,” Sterling said.
“It’s not something we are surprised by. We are expected to win. We are expected to produce good football and I think over these last couple of months, it has not been up to the level.
“I think he understands that. I don’t think it is something he feels threatened by. I think he is up for the challenge to try to make it right. We have a chance to do that tomorrow and at the World Cup.”