Gareth Southgate starts England reign seeking positives

England’s interim manager will urge his players to be brave against Malta as they seek to put the nightmare of Euro 2016 behind them

It was Jordan Henderson who laid bare the sense of desolation that, well over three months on, still plays on the minds of all those who were there.

The scene was the dressing room at the Allianz Riviera as a squad struggled in the aftermath of humiliation and elimination while the boom of Icelandic celebrations still reverberated around the arena outside. England players stared at the floor, desperately avoiding eye contact. Roy Hodgson broke down as he confirmed his four-year tenure as manager was over. It was, and still is, the stuff of nightmares.

“That is probably one of the worst places I’ve been in my career,” said Henderson, an unused substitute that night in June but, regardless, a senior player numbed by arguably the most excruciating defeat in the national team’s recent history. “It was a horrible place to be, that dressing room. The sense of shock. We’d let everyone down: the fans, the country, but most of all we let the manager and his staff down. People lose their jobs on the back of games like that. I just felt I needed to go over to try and pick people up but everyone was emotional. The manager was with the talk he gave and it wasn’t nice to see.

“Sometimes people think we are machines and they can chuck everything at whoever the manager is and just criticise but I can tell you we do care. I know it’s easy to say: ‘You have to learn from those experiences, take them forward and use them to motivate you so that it doesn’t happen again.’ But I think it will always stay with the players who were there. You will always wonder: ‘What could I have done more?’ or ‘What could I have done better?’ After the Euros the fans at Wembley will have every right to be mad but I always believe they want us to do well. They are still with us and they are proud of England. And we know we are the only people who can turn it around. The only way is up now.”

At Wembley on Saturday, against a Malta side ranked a lowly 176 in the world, England’s players step back into the spotlight. The scrutiny will return, along with those familiar questions about progress and philosophy, long-term strategy and reasons for hope.

This was supposed to be Sam Allardyce’s grand bow, an occasion the Football Association hoped to mark with a giveaway of 4,000 T-shirts – emblazoned with the slogan: “The journey starts with us all pulling together” – to fans. They have since binned the clothing, as well as the original crowd mosaic earmarked for kick-off, writing off £25,000 in the process. Allardyce, undone by a newspaper sting, never made it as far as a home fixture in charge. Even last month’s late victory in Slovakia, in arguably one of the trickiest fixtures of the section, feels an age away.

The latest dawn of a new era will be overseen by Gareth Southgate, an interim appointed from within who, for what he offers on paper, must be considered the favourite to succeed full-time in the new year. His team’s performances, starting against Malta and in Slovenia on Tuesday, may still convince the 46-year-old this is a role he should be pursuing. He will urge his team to be “brave” and play “with style” on their return to the spotlight in this country, encouraged as he has been by the mood at St George’s Park all week.

“I know a game went against them in the summer, which was difficult for everyone to take,” he said. “But I still think people will recognise the quality is there, the potential is there, and this group have pride in playing for England. That’s what I’ve seen this week. They do want to make their country proud and they are frustrated by what happened in the summer. But the only way to restore [faith] is through consistent performances.”

They will be adventurous and forward thinking against Malta, with Wayne Rooney expected to operate from midfield and the pace of Theo Walcott, Dele Alli and, most likely, Marcus Rashford to stretch the visitors.

“We want to control games and we have the technical ability to do that but you have to take risks at times,” Southgate said. “My job is to guide them and allow them to express themselves as much as possible. At the end of my period in charge, I’d like to look back and say I gave them that permission. You have to accept the players won’t succeed all the time.

“The under-21s know I won’t crucify them for mistakes. But as games go on, if you stick to the way we want to play, eventually you will wear teams down. They can’t chase you forever.”

Lessons have to be learned from Nice. Malta will be far less ambitious in their approach, seeking to frustrate and raise local anxiety, than Iceland were but the more fancied side will have to be patient this time around.

“We forced it quite a lot and it looked to me, from the bench, that we were a bit shocked to be 2-1 down in that game,” said Henderson, his thoughts drifting back to June. “I don’t think it was a lack of belief. I still think we believed we could win the game and do well in the tournament. We tried to force it too much, instead of being patient and taking our time to build.”

Logic suggests the quality should tell at Wembley but, after so much recent farce, England’s players must convince the home support they are witnessing the start of something more concrete. Southgate admitted he would take a narrow, 1-0 victory, if the display had merited more. “We have to win,” he said. “But what I’m focused on is the quality of the performance. I want us to use the ball well, create a lot of chances. With the players we’ve got, I’d expect us to finish chances but I’d take a clean sheet for sure.”

That was the interim manager being circumspect. If he has his way, the caution will end there.