Gareth Southgate believes questioning the pride of his England team is “outrageous” and thinks their commitment to the cause puts some of his own contemporaries to shame.
England were booed after going in goalless at half-time in Friday’s World Cup qualifier against a Malta side ranked 190th in the world, but rallied late on to claim a flattering 4-0 win.
France’s 0-0 draw against Luxembourg on Sunday may put that result in context, yet the notion that the Three Lions are still fighting to win the hearts and minds of their public remains.
Speaking on the eve of Monday’s crunch Wembley clash against Slovakia, the England boss launched a bold defence of the squad, suggesting they were more up for the challenge than several of his own team-mates in years gone by.
“The notion the players aren’t proud to play is outrageous, really,” he said. “They’re unbelievably proud to play.
“It’s the same narrative I heard when I was playing. I’m able to contextualise and rationalise it. Every England team I played in, the lads could never quite get their heads round why that was.
“When you’re having a bad day as a player, sometimes it looks as if you can’t get to things, you’re not as sharp, so people perceive you’re not trying. The easiest, basest reaction is to say, ‘oh, they don’t care’.
“More often than not, players have cared too much and been wrapped up in the experience too much and not been able to give their best for that reason.
“They want to be here. The easiest thing in the world would be to pull out, but we picked 28 players and 28 turned up. That’s a really good sign, and it hasn’t always been the case. I’ve played in teams where people were there every time, and others weren’t.
“It’s a shame the guys who come get stick, and the guys who duck out escape.”
England go into their penultimate home qualifier two points ahead of Slovakia, with control of the group at stake. With five goals in his last three outings, Tottenham striker Harry Kane will carry much of the home side’s attacking burden at his club’s adopted home ground.
Kane is a back-to-back golden boot winner at Premier League level and a brace against Malta on Friday took his international tally to 10 in 20 games – a record that has caught the attention of the Spain coach and led to the player judging himself against the very highest of standards.
“I was having some interaction with Julen Lopetegui at a game and he was commenting on how lucky I was to have Harry,” revealed Southgate.
“He’s in top form, but he’s also got the mentality to want to be the best. He knows where he’s sitting. I asked him how many goals in how many games and he knew. He also knew how many (Cristiano) Ronaldo had at this point, how many (Lionel) Messi had at this point and everybody else.
“He’s driven to be one of the world’s best and why can’t that happen moving forward?”
Kane turns 25 next July, an age at which Messi had netted 26 times for Argentina with Ronaldo boasting 22 for Portugal.
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