There are few sins that an Englishman can commit bigger than missing a penalty. If history has taught us anything, failing to stick it in from 12 yards can turn you from hero to zero in a second. It’s something that Gareth Southgate knows all too well.
The England manager is currently ushering football home, with England poised to take on Croatia in the World Cup semi-final tomorrow evening – the first the men’s team has reached in 28 years. Not just content with being the most delicious snack, Southgate is the glue holding the team together. His devious set pieces have been one of the most important parts of this team’s success – and having been there and done that, is no doubt having a great impact on the players. Hell, he could be a Sir by next week if things go the way the are. But it wasn’t always like this.
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At Euro ’96 – when the nation set up the spare bedroom for football to visit for three weeks – it wasn’t all so rosy for our Gareth. In England’s soul-crushing penalty defeat against Germany, Southgate’s limp penalty was saved, and sent the team crashing out of the tournament. “I’ve learnt a million things from the day and the years that have followed it,” Southgate said last week. “The biggest thing being that when something goes wrong in your life, it doesn’t finish you.”
Finish him, it didn’t. Now he’s the nation’s darling – but it took a bit of work to get there. Fixing his image took a bit of hard work, mind. Just months after the miss, Southgate featured in a TV advert for Pizza Hut that poked fun at the penalty calamity. It wasn’t that mean-spirited, mind. Stewart Pearce and Chris Waddle – who both missed crucial penalties for England in the 1990 World Cup semi-final defeat to Germany – were on hand for a bit of cathartic ribbing.
It’s cheesier than the deep-pan pizza they covet – but it showed a human side to players who had fluffed it a the biggest possible moment. In hindsight, Southgate told football mag Four Four Two that “I wish I hadn’t done it”, and implored Ashley Young and Ashley Cole to not do a similar stunt after England’s penalty defeat to Italy in Euro 2012.
It’s all water under the bridge now though. England bossed Colombia in a confident and dramatic penalty shoot out in this year’s World Cup, in part due to Southgate’s crucial preparation and belief. He’s absolved himself of his sins. Next 12-inch Meat Feast is on us, pal.