London (AFP) – England will hope to erase the lingering stain of Sam Allardyce’s embarrassing exit when interim manager Gareth Southgate takes charge for the first time in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Malta.
Just 12 days after Allardyce was forced to quit in disgrace following his indiscreet and offensive comments to undercover newspaper reporters, Southgate and his players desperately need to deliver a positive performance to restore some lustre to the English game’s tarnished reputation.
When Southgate fills out the team-sheet ahead of the Group F clash at Wembley, he will become the third England manager to undertake that task in the country’s past three fixtures.
Roy Hodgson quit immediately after England’s Euro 2016 humiliation against Iceland, while Allardyce lasted only one match — a 1-0 victory in the opening qualifier against Slovakia — before being forced to fall on his sword.
Even for a team with England’s dismal track record over the last two decades, those debacles were especially galling and former captain Alan Shearer summed up the mood of many when he claimed the national team are a laughing stock in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Handing the reins to Southgate, who had been working as England’s Under-21 coach, for the next four matches buys the Football Association time to search for Allardyce’s replacement.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger would be the FA’s dream choice and, with his contract due to expire at the end of the season, he has intriguingly refused to rule out taking the job so far.
Arsenal winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can testify to Wenger’s many qualities, but he has been impressed by the diligent Southgate and believes he will help steady the ship for now.
“Everyone knows about Arsene Wenger, what a great manager, but right now there’s a lot going on and all I’m focused on is Gareth,” Oxlade-Chamberlain said.
“He’s just come in. The first few days working with him have been brilliant. They’ve made the boys feel relaxed and confident with what they’re trying to do.”
– Mentally fragile –
Southgate had distanced himself from the job before Allardyce was appointed, but the former Crystal Palace defender jumped at the unexpected second chance and is believed to harbour ambitions of leading his country for more than their remaining fixtures this year.
The 46-year-old’s only previous managerial experience was a frustrating three-year spell at Middlesbrough which ended in the sack after relegation from the Premier League in 2009.
But Southgate, whose most enduring moment in an England shirt was the decisive penalty miss in the Euro ’96 semi-final shoot-out against Germany, bristles at the public perception that he is a nice guy without the necessary experience or steel to thrive in such a high-profile post.
It is an accusation also thrown at England’s collection of talented but mentally fragile stars and Tottenham right-back Kyle Walker admits finding a way to break that psychological barrier remains the key to future success at major tournaments.
“I think the quality in the dressing room is frightening,” Walker said.
“As soon as we just start gelling together and being a bit more streetwise, it will be a lot more beneficial for England and for us as a group of players.”
Southgate can’t be expected to work miracles in his temporary role but Malta, thrashed 5-1 by Scotland in their first qualifier, should be ideal opposition to get his reign off to a winning start before the trickier trip to Slovenia on Tuesday.
With Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Adam Lallana all sidelined through injury, Southgate’s first significant decisions concern his forward line.
Wayne Rooney has been in poor form but Southgate has opted to keep him as captain and has to decide whether to use the Manchester United star as a striker or in a deeper role.
Marcus Rashford, back after being dropped by Allardyce, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge, Theo Walcott and Dele Alli give Southgate a variety of attacking options.
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