OLIVER HOLT: Dear England, I have one wish for 2024: Get behind Gareth Southgate and wake


I took a trip to the West End last week, at the end of the old year, to watch Dear England at the Prince Edward Theatre. There were plenty of football fans there, young and old, taken to watch it as a special Christmas treat. It is a play which, hopefully, will resonate long into the new year, into the summer of the European Championships in Germany and beyond.

Dear England is about Gareth Southgate, essentially, and his attempt to change the culture around the England men’s football team, to remove the fear of failure and of ridicule that used to grip players when they joined up with the national side and, in the process, improve the team’s chances of winning a first major trophy since 1966.

The play is remarkable for the brilliantly observed performance of Joseph Fiennes, as Southgate, although in other respects it retreats into simplistic and patronising caricatures of footballers, and many of the people around them, as dolts. It goes for too many cheap laughs.

Part of the idea, when it was originally conceived, was that it would be a play in three acts, with the final, climactic part charting the moment when the transformation wrought by Southgate’s revolution comes to fruition in Qatar at the end of 2022. The play never quite comes to terms with the fact that didn’t happen.

But this is not meant to be a theatre review. This is about Southgate’s fourth, and final, act as England manager: this summer’s Euros. For those of us who have waited almost our whole lifetimes — I was lying in a cot in front of black-and-white television when England won the World Cup in 1966 — to see England win a major tournament, this is our shot.

Gareth Southgate will lead England into a fourth major tournament this summer at Euro 2024

Gareth Southgate will lead England into a fourth major tournament this summer at Euro 2024

Southgate has transformed the culture to make the squad relish representing England again

Southgate has transformed the culture to make the squad relish representing England again

Mail Sport's Oliver Holt hopes the nation gets behind Southgate ahead of this summer's Euros

Mail Sport’s Oliver Holt hopes the nation gets behind Southgate ahead of this summer’s Euros

It is our shot because of the raft of brilliant players England can field but, most of all, it is our shot because of the manager who commands them. It is our shot because Southgate has indeed changed the whole culture around the England team and fashioned them into a unit that relishes representing the country again.

It is our shot because Southgate has, to his everlasting credit, managed to take the club versus country battle for the players’ loyalties, a battle that the clubs were winning hands down, and turn it back in England’s favour.

Now it is playing for England that is a sanctuary for many of them. Now it is playing for England where they feel most valued. Now it is playing for England where they feel the loyalty of the coach.

That is all down to Southgate. And it is part of the reason why he is already the most successful England manager after Sir Alf Ramsey. It is part of the reason why he has taken England to the semi-finals, the final and the quarter-finals of the last three tournaments the country has competed in. And it’s part of the reason why so many want England to win so badly this summer. This is a manager and a group of players worth rooting for.

Southgate is a good man. His players have got guts and resilience as well as oceans of talent. This is a manager who has helped make this England a team to be proud of, on and off the pitch.

Being the England coach, particularly in a tournament year, is about so much more than tactics. That is why Fabio Capello was such a disaster. That is why Jose Mourinho would be a terrible appointment if the FA were ever — God forbid — tempted to cast their gaze in that direction. It is, above all, about man-management and Southgate has proved himself a master of it.

So if I have just one sporting wish for this year, it is that the nation gets behind Southgate and his team in the build-up to the Euros and that the part of the England fanbase that seems to distrust him because, basically, he is kind and measured, and sometimes seems to be willing him to fail, wake up before it’s too late.

When will people realise? Southgate is not our weakness. He’s the opposite of that. He’s England’s best chance. There is an awful lot of talent in this team but there is just as much talent in the manager. He is getting the best out of a fine group of players and if they get the bit of luck that every country needs, England can win the Euros this summer.

England supporters are watching Southgate get the best out of a fine group of England players

England supporters are watching Southgate get the best out of a fine group of England players

England will head into the tournament with an outstanding squad featuring Jude Bellingham

England will head into the tournament with an outstanding squad featuring Jude Bellingham

Harry Kane is set to lead the line at the tournament and will be the Euros best striker on show

Harry Kane is set to lead the line at the tournament and will be the Euros best striker on show

People laugh at the English for their arrogance around their football team, and maybe some of that is merited, but my experience is that ambitions for England are usually muted by bleak experience. I have never gone into a major tournament with an expectation that England will win it.

I thought Sven Goran Eriksson’s side had a decent chance of winning Euro 2004 in Portugal and, by the end of the group games, England had probably become the favourites. But then Wayne Rooney was injured early in the quarter-final against Portugal and everything changed.

There have always been caveats. England have gone into tournaments with a better group of players than the ones available to Southgate now but there has always been a team — Brazil in 2002, Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, France in 2018, 2021 and 2022 — that seemed to be above the rest.

None of that applies this time. England have a brilliant team stocked with some of the best players in the world. Jude Bellingham, who has made such a magnificent start to his career with Real Madrid, has a claim to be the best player on the planet in the post-Messi, post-Ronaldo era.

Harry Kane will be the best striker at the tournament, a player who is a joy to watch, a forward who has got even better since his summer move to Bayern Munich and whose technique and vision and ability to create chances for others continue to be underrated by so many.

England’s range of attacking options is frighteningly good. Kane will probably be flanked by Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden, who is maturing all the time at Manchester City. There is fierce competition from Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, who cannot even get into the squad at the moment.

There are so many creative options in midfield, too. Bellingham is the standout there but if James Maddison comes back from injury and reproduces anything like the form he was showing at Spurs in the first months of the season, he will be hard to leave out. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who might be the most gifted player in the English league, is also pushing for a midfield starting berth.

Declan Rice, who could be world's best holding midfielder, will protect England's defence

Declan Rice, who could be world’s best holding midfielder, will protect England’s defence

Southgate remains the most important factor in England's success despite the squad strength

Southgate remains the most important factor in England’s success despite the squad strength

And then there is Declan Rice in front of the back-four. Is there a better holding midfield player in the world than Rice at the moment? I don’t think so. He has been outstanding at Arsenal, just as he was outstanding at West Ham. He has been the player of the season so far.

Defence is still an issue but any country that has Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Ben Chilwell, Reece James and Kieran Trippier at its disposal cannot complain too loudly. Injuries might limit those options — and the fitness of Stones will be particularly important — but there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful.

And of all of those reasons, the most important is Southgate. He is the man who leads it all, who brings it all together. He is the man who has turned England into a team that believes it can win again. This is his fourth act. This is the story that Dear England wanted to tell but never could.

IT’S ALL KICKING OFF! 

It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football, with a show every Monday and Thursday this season.

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Mail’s Jeff is an inspiration, he deserves MBE

The first time I went to New York City, I drove there with Jeff Powell after we had reported on Nigel Mansell becoming the IndyCar Series champion in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in the autumn of 1993. Jeff, of course, had been to New York many times before and even though we worked for different newspapers then, he took his wide-eyed companion on a tour, including a drink in the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. It was a privilege for me, both then and in the years that followed, to tag along with giants of our industry such as him, Jimmy Lawton and Hugh McIlvanney, men who were heroes to me, to listen to their stories, read their reports and witness the ferocity of their dinner table arguments.

Jim and Hugh have left us now but when Jeff received an MBE in the New Year Honours list last week for services to journalism, it was a reminder of an astonishing life in newspapers that he is still living to the full.

Mail Sport's Jeff Powell was honoured for his career with an MBE in the New Year's Honours

Mail Sport’s Jeff Powell was honoured for his career with an MBE in the New Year’s Honours

My turn of the year reflections and desires for 2024…

Best sporting moment witnessed live in 2023: Stuart Broad winning the Fourth Ashes Test for England at The Oval on the last day of July by dismissing Alex Carey with the last ball of his magnificent career.

Sporting wish for 2024: That managers stop blaming every defeat for their team on referees and VAR and start taking responsibility when things go wrong.

Sporting goal for 2024: Fulfil my ambition of visiting all 92 English Football League grounds. I have got just six clubs left to tick off — Cambridge United, Sutton United, AFC Wimbledon, Barrow, Harrogate Town and Colchester United.

Stuart Broad winning the fourth Ashes Test with the last ball of his career was the best sporting moment seen by Holt in 2023

Stuart Broad winning the fourth Ashes Test with the last ball of his career was the best sporting moment seen by Holt in 2023



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