Gareth Southgate briefs his players ahead of a huge week for English football

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Gareth Southgate has insisted he and his England players are not satisfied with a major tournament semi-final anymore and is confident they are not too nice to win the European Championship.

And Southgate expects to be boosted by the return to fitness of Bukayo Saka, who will put pressure on Jadon Sancho to reclaim his place for Wednesday night’s semi-final against Denmark at Wembley.

England made it successive semi-final appearances with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Ukraine. The achievement equals the World Cup run in Russia three years ago, but manager Southgate has stressed he and his squad will not be happy if this is as good as it gets.

England lost to Croatia in the 2018 semi-final and Southgate was also part of the 1996 team that were beaten by Germany in the last four of the European Championships.

Those tournaments, along with the 1990 World Cup, when England got to the semi-finals, are remembered as big successes but Southgate believes times have changed.

“I guess the interesting part for us is we won’t feel totally satisfied if it’s just a semi-final,” said Southgate. “Maybe three years ago, although there was massive disappointment after the semi-final, there was a feeling we’d come a long way. Now we’ve replicated what we did there, but that won’t be enough to fulfil the group. That’s a positive sign.”

Ukraine 0 England 4, Euro 2020 quarter-final

Southgate and his players have become national heroes and have received praise for the way they have conducted themselves. But he dismissed the notion that nice guys are rarely winners.

“Our group are ready to get to the next step, they are excited by that challenge,” said Southgate. “They have got a mixture of being able to make themselves, I feel, relatable to the public, but they have got an edge. They don’t get through the last few weeks and the challenges that they have had and the challenges they have got through in the last 12 months as a team without having an edge or that mental toughness as well.

“Of course, in tournaments some of the games unfold in really peculiar ways. We’ve seen that with some of the other matches. But they will be prepared and they will be ready mentally, and we have got guys who have won trophies now and know what that has taken. But they have also gained confidence from that.

“The other thing that is so positive, these young players, 18, 19, 20, 21, they’re getting more experiences of England that are positive and enjoyable. They’re feeling what it can be like to be in an England shirt and have fun, and win matches and have a relationship with the fans that is positive. That’s so important for a generation to come. We’ll get more out of their talent if we can keep that relationship with the fans.”

There will be more than 60,000 fans inside Wembley for the semi-final and Southgate added: “To be coming back to Wembley is a great thing for us. It’s not for me to tell the fans how to be or what to be – they found a pretty good way of doing that in the last game.

“So just be as they’ve been really and in the end the responsibility is on us to play well and affect the emotions in the stadium. But, without a doubt, the two things fed off each other in the last game (against Germany). That can only be helpful for the team.”

The return of the famous inflatables, much to Saka's delight

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Mason Mount gets in on the action

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Saka missed the Ukraine game after suffering a knock to his ankle and was replaced by Sancho. But the Arsenal star is back in contention for the semi-final and Southgate said: “He should be fine.

“He did declare himself available for the (Ukraine) game, but we had not really had the chance to see him on the pitch and working at the level we felt would vindicate that decision. He will go back into full training with the group tomorrow (Monday) and he should be fine, yeah.”

England’s old hoodoos hold no fear for a squad blissfully free of baggage

By Jason Burt

1968, 1990, 1996, 2018 and, now, 2021. It is not as if England have failed to reach semi-finals since winning the World Cup in 1966, but the fact that Gareth Southgate has delivered two in the last three years proves just why it is now legitimate to place him only behind Sir Alf Ramsey in the pantheon of England managers, at least when it comes to on-field success.

Factor in that Southgate was a player at Euro 96 and also led the national team to the last four of the fledgling Nations League in 2019 and no Englishman has come as close to matching Ramsey.

The next step, of course, will be the hardest yet. No-one needs reminding that each of England’s four previous forays into the semi-finals of major competitions has ended in failure. To put that in context, since 1966, Germany – or West Germany – have reached 18 semi-finals and lost only six of them, winning the World Cup and the European Championships three times each.

A history of England's semi-finals

The comparison is brutal but, as has become the mantra of this England squad and manager since Russia three years ago, they are in the business of “writing their own history” and not being slaves to the shackles of past failures.

“We’ve knocked off so many hoodoos or perceived barriers already – I feel like this group of players will feel this is just the next challenge,” Southgate said after England’s unforgettable quarter-final victory over Ukraine in Rome that set up Wednesday’s semi-final back at Wembley Stadium against Denmark.

Two goals from Harry Kane, one from Harry Maguire and even a first for Jordan Henderson – earning his 62nd cap – confirmed how accomplished a performance it was as England also became the first nation to achieve five consecutive clean sheets at a Euros. Southgate was even able to quickly use all five substitutes and rest players.

After the flight back from London in the early hours he offered more insight into how this squad may be the best-equipped to cross the Rubicon and finally reach a final as he divides it into two groups – the “tribal elders” and the “newer” cohort of young players.

In that first category falls Kane, Maguire, Henderson, Jordan Pickford, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker and John Stones – the older heads in a youthful squad who were with Southgate in Russia where barriers were first being taken down. “They’ve been through these experiences together that they pass on to the younger group as well,” Southgate explained. “And the newer group, they take the lead from the tribal elders, if you like, so I think it is key. It’s not just about talent. Team building is about so much more than that.”

Those older players have won knock-out ties; they have won a penalty shoot-out; they have helped changed the culture around England. And, at the same time, those younger ones have already achieved the same – and more – with their under-age groups. Several of them have even won trophies with England before.

“We talked with the junior teams for a long time about our aim being to regularly get in to the last four of tournaments,” Southgate said. “Then we would be in the mix and knocking on the door and learning how to win in those critical moments.”

And so in 2017, Mason Mount was part of the side that beat Portugal as England won the Under-19s Euros; Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho played when England beat Spain to win the Under-17 World Cup and Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the winning goal when England triumphed in the Under-20 World Cup.

The likes of Phil Foden have experienced success with England at youth level

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“They were playing against players that they are now in opposition with in a tournament like this and those young players now feel this is the level and this is what’s expected,” Southgate explained. “That, culturally, for the team over the next period of years has to stay strong and give them the foundation.”

This is no co-incidence. These players know what it feels like to lift trophies wearing an England shirt and they do not catch sight at the badge the opposition are wearing and shrink – as previous generations did. Neither are they cowed by the experience. They look at the face of the player they are up against and remember they beat him in previous competitions for their country. Psychologically it is a huge shift for England.

Other issues, less palatable ones, have also drawn the squad together – the racist incidents in Montenegro and Bulgaria, the recent row over whether the players should ‘take the knee’ before games.

“We had really open conversations as a group where people got to know each other a bit better, got to know each other’s feelings, respect their views and so it was clear in my head how we would need to respond,” Southgate explained.

“If they are decisions that aren’t going be universally popular and haven’t been then they are what we stand for as a team and as a group and in the end, even though that might have disappointed some people, it was critical for us to support the team mates and support each other, really.”

There is no doubt it has created a stronger squad – as has the manager’s remarkable single-mindedness. Southgate has been inundated with messages after the Ukraine win. His answer? “On to Wednesday”.

There is another hoodoo to banish.