Gareth Southgate has thanked his players for uniting a nation but asked them a simple question on the eve of English football’s biggest game in over half a century.
What medal colour do you want?
The country has taken Southgate’s team to its heart but, as he prepares for the Wembley showdown with Italy, the England manager insists only victory will be good enough.
He said: “You get lovely messages that say whatever happens now, people are respecting how they (the players) have been and respecting that they have represented the country in the right way.
“I said to the players about all of these other bits, the legacy bits, they have achieved … but now they have a choice of what medal colour?
“And that is, in the end, is what it is all about.
“The lovely messages … that won’t be how it will be on Monday.
“I get the story, but it’s been about how can we push this team as far as we think we can?
“Because I know it won’t be enough for me and for the rest of the staff and for the players if we don’t win it now.”
In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s match, victory will bring euphoria but defeat the only desolation.
Whatever the outcome of the most important game in over half a century of English football, there will, in the days that follow, be no broader picture for Southgate.
Yet as he surveys the campaign that has taken them to the final of Euro 2020 – and looks back at his five years in charge – Southgate could not be prouder of how these England players have become role models for a nation.
And could not be prouder of how they have brought people together.
He explained: “What hit me coming back from Russia was families coming up to me on the street, people coming up to me on the street from all backgrounds of our country and saying they felt they could go to a game now and not be abused at the stadium, connect with the team. They felt part of it.
“And that inclusivity is really important for us because I think that is what modern England is.
“We know it hasn’t always been the case and there are historic reasons for that. But that level of tolerance and inclusion is what we have to be about moving forward.”
For a couple of decades, English footballers were rarely held up to children as examples of decency.
It is, of course, down to the character and compassion of the players themselves but, under Southgate, this group of individuals have become leaders in society.
Southgate explained: “We have exceptional examples of players setting a really good example for young kids who are watching them and will aspire to be them through this tournament.
“It’s important that their parents, when they are talking to those kids, can say … ‘we are quite happy for you to be a Raheem, a Marcus, a Kalvin Phillips’ or whoever they might be, because they stand for the right things off the pitch as well as on it.
“I couldn’t say this was always the clear vision but the longer I have been in the role, the more I’ve understood the importance to our fans of that connection with the team.”
That connection is, indeed, important and it will be forged forever if England can overcome Italy inside a raucous Wembley.
And that is what it is all about now. Game day.
“There’s a really fine balance now because we know young people need support but if you’re trying to achieve extraordinary things, which our players are, then you’re into an environment that is a lot more hostile, and it can’t always be supportive,” said Southgate. “You’ve got to play in front of tens of thousands of people … you’re in the colosseum and it’s the thumbs up or the thumbs down.
“It can’t always be a cuddly, warm environment – you’ve got to have resilience.”
And they will certainly need resilience against the Italians, particularly in the midfield battle where the game will probably be won or lost.
“They’ve got two exceptional footballers, two of the best in the world in Jorginho and (Marco) Verratti,” said Southgate. “But we’re different and we don’t have a player like them anyway but we’ve got other players with strengths that can hurt them and we’ve got to make sure that we’re set up in a way that we maximise our strengths and to take the sting out of theirs.
“I think we’re in a position we deserve to be over the course of the tournament and I think we’ve got a 50-50 game against a really tough opponent. We’ve got to get it right. We can win it, but we’ve got to get it spot on to win it.”
They have got it spot-on so far – just one more glorious step to take.