Gareth Southgate says trying to win Euros with England ‘the ultimate challenge’

Under-fire Gareth Southgate is embracing expectations and the “ultimate challenge” of trying to win the Euros rather than worrying whether Sunday’s last-16 clash with Slovakia could be his final match.

Boos, and even some plastic cups, were aimed the long-serving manager’s way after Tuesday’s miserable 0-0 draw with Slovenia, which saw them win Group C but left fans and pundits unhappy.

Southgate knows the team have to find their “next level” as the knockout phase gets under way against Slovakia in Gelsenkirchen, where they recorded their only win of these Euros a fortnight ago against Serbia.

“Absolutely (enjoying the challenge), it’s a brilliant challenge,” Southgate said, as reported by England Football.

“We’ve had different problems to solve as a team over the last few weeks and I’m the leader trying to connect all of that and keep the juggernaut that is the England football team on the right path. That’s how I’m viewing up.

“Every day I wake up and think what we need to do, the conversations that need to happen, the areas of the game we need to focus on. It’s the ultimate challenge.”

Southgate is undeterred by background negativity and knows better than anyone the pressures that come with representing England.

The 53-year-old went to four tournaments as a player and this is his fourth – and possibly final – tournament as manager, with Sunday his 99th match in charge.

Asked if it ever crosses his mind that Slovakia could be his last game, he said: “No. I’m enjoying being here. I want to be here for another fortnight.

“I’ve got nothing to rush back for. I’m in the final of the staff padel competition.

“There’s a lot to look forward to really. Seeing as the kit man is my partner, it’s the team from heaven. I’m looking forward to a few more days here.”

Southgate and kit man Pat Frost are waiting to find out who they are playing in a padel final which all connected to England will be hoping does not have to be cancelled.

The manager reiterated his plea for fans to stick with the team whatever they think of him in the build-up to a game for which a quarter-final clash against Switzerland is the reward.

“I think the biggest thing is that we know that what we have done over a long period of time works,” Southgate said.

“I think when you are a younger manager, you don’t always have evidence from results, and you are not certain where the players might be with ideas.

“But then as you get more experienced, you know where the group of players are you are working with, you know when they are with you, and you know what they need to do to win football matches.

“There is no question that you cannot fast track that feeling, but that is very much where I feel I am now and very much looking forward to this next phase of the competition.

Gareth Southgate on the touchline during England's draw against Denmark
Southgate’s side were booed after group stage draws against Denmark and Slovenia (Adam Davy/PA)

“Every game being involved with England, whether it was the first one I played in or the 54th I managed, every one brings immense pride. You are leading your country.

“It is the pinnacle of everything. I have never taken that for granted, I have always felt a responsibility and definitely a pride in doing that.”

Southgate dismissed talk that his side have benefitted from easy draws during his eight years in charge and talked up the threat posed by Slovakia, who are ranked 45th in the world.

Their coach Francesco Calzona played up his side’s underdog status, saying England can become “unbeatable” if they click as a team and believes they have the best squad at Euro 2024.

Jude Bellingham is among those stars and, having turned 21 on Saturday, is looking to get back to his best in Gelsenkirchen, where he scored and was man of the match against Serbia.

“I think we have to always remember with Jude, he is 21 today,” Southgate said.

“I think we touched on this towards the end of the season – I think because of his maturity and the impact he’s had.

“We expect so much of him but we are singing happy birthday to him and Eberechi (Eze) today and we are reminding ourselves that these are very young men.

“We’ve got a lot of young players in the team and they are performing on one of the biggest stages in world football and there are inevitably going to be days when you hit the heights and days when you don’t quite hit those heights.

“But he’s a top player and he is fully motivated for the game tomorrow.”