LONDON – If the Football Association was worried that Saturday’s England vs. Malta 2018 World Cup qualifier at Wembley might struggle to capture the country’s interest, the departure of Sam Allardyce has guaranteed a disproportionate focus on a match featuring the side which is 157th in the FIFA rankings. The game is a 90,000 sell-out crowd.
Gareth Southgate starts what most see as a four-game audition to secure the job permanently and he could hardly have wished for an easier start. Beating Malta at home rates a close third after death and taxes in the league of certainties. England has scored in 14 of its last 15 competitive games. The only time it has failed to score in that time was against Slovakia at Euro 2016. With next Tuesday’s trip to Slovenia in mind, England is unbeaten in its last 14 away games (excluding neutral venues). The last defeat was a 4-2 loss to Sweden in November 2012.
While England implodes at finals, when it comes to qualifying nobody does it better. Allardyce’s only match in charge, the 1-0 win in Slovakia last month, was its 13th qualifying win in a row. England is, in fact, unbeaten in its last 30 qualifiers since a 1-0 defeat away to Ukraine in October 2009. Far- from-mighty Malta will be number 31.
So Southgate will, kick off his caretaker role with a victory, it is only a question of how many goals Malta concedes. When Scotland traveled to the Mediterranean island for its opening qualifier, it put five past Malta, which also had two players sent-off.
England will be without the in-form Raheem Sterling who is injured, though this hardly matters. Wayne Rooney retains the captain’s armband, Joe Hart is back from Italy and Theo Walcott, who has started the season superbly, can expect to play. But most attention will be on the manager and captain — again — rather than the team with five goals the minimum expected against the Maltese minnows with any sort of victory in Slovenia acceptable.
The match in Ljubljana could be a banana skin and England struggled to beat 10-man Slovakia last month, but the games against an improving Scotland will probably present a great challenge.
While Southgate said Rooney will remain captain that does not mean he will start. The new manager would be unlikely to want a news circus for his first game in charge by dropping Rooney and for heaven’s sake, it is Malta at home. Southgate is hardly likely to have selection nightmares, worrying whether he’s got his selection spot-on.
England would probably win with Rooney in goal. On the other hand, if Southgate wanted to prove he can make the hard decisions, then leaving out Rooney would end that particular argument.
Rooney is not the player he was; he no longer has the combination of power and pace that he did five years ago that made him so fearsome. But for Manchester United he is playing no worse than Paul Pogba and a few others though inevitably, given his stature, Rooney is under more scrutiny. My guess is that Rooney will start in a slightly deeper role behind a front two of possibly Marcus Rashford and Dean Sturridge.
The dust is still settling on the 67-day Allardyce era and with Southgate in charge for the October and November matches the F.A. has some breathing space before a full-time successor is named. The F.A. will hope England wins all four of Southgate’s games as it would save it from interviewing anyone else for the job.
High on the new manager’s list is the candidate’s nationality (ideally he must be English) and his background (squeaky clean). Southgate ticks both boxes. An Englishman leading England is a natural fit, though of the squad Southgate chose only backup goalkeeper Tom Heaton and late call-up Michael Keane of Burnley have an English club manager, Sean Dyche. So working under a foreign coach is nothing strange to England players and while the F.A. has no control over clubs, it has made it known its preferred choice is for an Englishman, though if Arsene Wenger was suddenly available he would become a naturalized Englishman.
The problem is, there are not many — make that any — top-class English managers around, which make the F.A.’s short list of candidates almost miniscule. The only other English manager the F.A. spoke to before appointing Allardyce was Steve Bruce, who left Hull during the summer.
If the F.A. rated Bruce that highly, he would have been offered the job by now, before Southgate accepted his temporary role, and with no other Englishman a realistic alternative the caretaker will almost certainly be offered the job full time.
Southgate is one of the most charming people you could wish to meet. He is intelligent, eloquent, passionate and immensely likeable. Allardyce may have been careless with his revelations to undercover reporters, but even his detractors could not deny he has a solid managerial background.
For all his natural warmth, Southgate’s CV contains nothing to suggest he should be a senior England manager or will succeed where a string of others with better qualifications have failed at major finals.
After retiring from playing, Southgate was appointed manager of Middlesbrough in June 2006. Five months after Boro’s relegation from the top flight in May 2009 he was sacked.
In January 2011, Southgate became the Football Association’s head of elite development, working with Sir Trevor Brooking. Southgate left after 18 months, returning to his previous role as a TV pundit.
Two and a half years later the F.A. came calling again and Southgate was made manager of the Under-21s. The familiar pattern of England managers was followed as Southgate’s team qualified for the 2015 U-21 European Championship, but at the finals it finished bottom of its group, scoring two goals in three matches.
So why is he in pole position for the job?
Because he is English, he is an F.A. man, doesn’t make waves and has no previous baggage, which appears as important as possessing a track-record of proven ability.
If, or given its qualifying record, when England reaches the 2018 World Cup final does Southgate really have the nous to outwit the best international coaches in Russia? Probably not, but he’s English and has no baggage.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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