Inside England camp: Oliver Holt on Southgate’s pending departure

Inside England camp: Oliver Holt on Southgate’s pending departure

If England’s attempt to win the European Championship is to be the last dance for Gareth Southgate, it began amid laughter and enthusiasm and the excitement of youth at the brand new home of one of Germany’s famous old clubs.

For large parts of a sunlit afternoon at Carl Zeiss Jena’s Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld, Southgate stood with a ball tucked in the crook of his left arm, acting as a referee as his squad fought out fiercely contested games of a version of head tennis in front of a few hundred local kids and their families.

In their first training session since they arrived at their base in Germany on Monday evening, all the disappointment and concern engendered by Friday’s defeat by Iceland at Wembley fell away as Southgate adjudicated a match between Harry Kane and Kieran Trippier on one side and John Stones and Kyle Walker on the other.

Stones, it ought to be said, showed very little sign of the discomfort that forced him off at half-time against Iceland and hurled himself around the small court with abandon. Having the Manchester City defender fit and available is critical to England’s hopes of progressing to the latter stages of the tournament.

It was a contest that turned on one marathon rally that featured shouts of joy and yells of despair and constant appeals to the grinning England manager from his animated players. It ended with a winning hit from Kane, which was as good an omen as any for the weeks that lie ahead.

Gareth Southgate, right, acted as a referee for several games of head tennis in training

A winning hit from Harry Kane was as good an omen as any for the weeks ahead at Euro 2024

A winning hit from Harry Kane was as good an omen as any for the weeks ahead at Euro 2024

The local youngsters — one club official said they could have got 15,000 fans into the stadium had they been allowed — had been screaming Kane’s name throughout the session, agog at the sight of the England captain who had such a stunning individual debut season for Bayern Munich.

And when it was over, the players signed autographs and flags and had selfies taken. Jude Bellingham, England’s 20-year-old prodigy, signed every book and smiled for every camera that was thrust in his direction and did it with the singular good grace that is one of the reasons for his popularity.

Southgate watched on happily, looking like a proud father of his charges, a manager who has made this England squad the boldest of his time at the helm, stacked with the promise of new stars such as Cole Palmer, Eberechi Eze, Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton to go with the stardust provided by men such as Kane, Bellingham and Phil Foden.

He looked, too, like a man who was determined to relish every minute of this tournament, which England will begin as favourites just ahead of France and which is likely to be the last of Southgate’s eight years in charge.

Some quotes from an interview Southgate had given to a German newspaper some weeks ago had surfaced the day before which suggested he was resigned to the fact that these Euros would be his last hurrah in the job.

‘If we don’t win, I probably won’t be here any more,’ Southgate had told Bild. ‘So maybe it is the last chance. I think around half the national coaches leave after a tournament — that’s the nature of international football.

‘I’ve been here almost eight years now and we’ve come close. You can’t constantly put yourself in front of the public and say, “A little more please”, as at some point people lose faith. If we want to be a great team and I want to be a top coach, you must deliver in big moments.’

This was not a day for mourning endings still to come, though. It was a day that felt like an embrace of a bright England future with young talented footballers covering every blade of grass, ready to embrace the challenge ahead of them.

Local youngsters were screaming Harry Kane's name after his stunning season at Bayern

Local youngsters were screaming Harry Kane’s name after his stunning season at Bayern

Jude Bellingham was among the stars to pose for photos and autographs with fans present

Jude Bellingham was among the stars to pose for photos and autographs with fans present

Carl Zeiss Jena were one of the most prominent teams in the old East Germany and got to the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1981, losing to Dinamo Tbilisi, before they fell on hard times and slid down to the fourth tier of German football, where they play now.

But they, like England, are on the way back. Their new stadium will be inaugurated later this summer with a match against Sampdoria, their last opponents in European competition in 1988, and they will host the all-conquering Bayer Leverkusen in the first round of the German Cup soon after.

They are embracing a new beginning and so, in his way, is Southgate. This is a squad brimming with youth and a starting XI that looks as if it may feature the sumptuous passing of Trent Alexander-Arnold in central midfield alongside Declan Rice, with the lavishly talented Bellingham in the advanced role that brought him so much joy in his first season at Real Madrid.

It is a squad picked on form, not reputation. It is a squad that says England are going to go for it, even if they are depleted by injuries at the back. It is a squad that is an intriguing blend of experience and the fearlessness of youth.

England are based half an hour or so from Jena and Tuesday afternoon, as they prepared to return there, a solitary policewoman guarded the entrance to the long avenue of lime trees that leads to their hotel and golf complex outside the sleepy village of Blankenhain.

There were few other clues to their presence. Blankenhain does not look like the kind of place to catch a fever of any kind, much less football fever. There is only one hostelry in the village, the Pension Parkhotel, and it was closed. There was a kebab shop, though, the Alanya Grill, so Gazza would have been happy.

England possess and exciting squad featuring a blend of experience and fearlessness of youth

England possess and exciting squad featuring a blend of experience and fearlessness of youth

The Three Lions appeared in good spirits as their opening Euro 2024 match approaches

The Three Lions appeared in good spirits as their opening Euro 2024 match approaches

Southgate will be looking for his young players to cast out some of England's ghosts

Southgate will be looking for his young players to cast out some of England’s ghosts

England have chosen to be as far as they can be away from anywhere in Germany, which fits their recent tournament pattern. There was a period when they flirted with staying in city centres — Krakow in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2014 — but recently they have sought out solitude.

On Saturday, they will leave the sanctuary of the Weimarer Land Spa and Golf Resort for the more industrial surroundings of the Ruhr, where Southgate’s side will play their opening group game against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday.

The Veltins Arena has unhappy memories for England. It is where Wayne Rooney was sent off in England’s World Cup quarter-final defeat by Portugal in 2006. The mere fact of Southgate coming to Germany as England manager ensures the revisiting of the heartache of his penalty miss against them at Euro 96.

There are ghosts in England’s past. We know that. But as Southgate watched his young players enjoying themselves in the sunshine on Tuesday and sounds of fun and laughter filled the air, it felt as if it were time for England to cast out those ghosts and run towards the light.

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