‘Unicorns and rubber chickens’ – England’s World Cup entertainment
Match of the Day: Southgate’s World Cup
Watch on iPlayer here and on Football Focus, Saturday, 29 December at 12:00 GMT on BBC One
It is more than five months since the World Cup, that glorious summer during which the temperature soared and England fans fell back in love with their football team.
Looking back on the tournament, England boss Gareth Southgate has spoken to the BBC as part of a special programme – MOTD: Southgate’s World Cup – which is available now on iPlayer.
From rubber chickens, to the famous waistcoat and that penalty shootout, here are some of the things he revealed.
There was a reason for the inflatable unicorns
A number of England played darts against journalists during the World CupOne of the features of England’s tournament was the relaxed attitude of the players, both towards the media and during their downtime away from playing and training.
They played darts against journalists, entertained themselves with 10-pin bowling and were pictured fooling around in the swimming pool – most famously when Kieran Trippier, Jordan Pickford, Jesse Lingard and Harry Maguire raced inflatable unicorns.
It turns out there was a reason beyond tomfoolery for the unicorns – one rooted in sports science.
“Our physical performances coaches approached things differently,” Southgate said. “As part of their recovery after a match, you want players to stay in the cold water for as long as they can but, naturally, they want to get out. You might have races or games in order to keep them engaged.
“I don’t know who signed off on the budget, but we had unicorns and rubber chickens to keep people entertained.”
He wasn’t too pleased with the Panama game
World Cup 2018: England 6-1 Panama highlightsEngland needed a stoppage-time goal in order to beat Tunisia in their first game, but had no such drama in their second, when they hammered Panama 6-1.
The crushing win, England’s biggest in a World Cup match, ensured they reached the last 16 with a game to spare.
But despite his side going 5-0 up by half-time, Southgate was not as pleased as after the win against Tunisia.
“I didn’t like the way we played,” he said. “A couple of minutes before half-time, I was thinking ‘we played much better against Tunisia, but now we’re 5-0 up. I don’t know if we deserve to be 5-0 up, but let’s enjoy it anyway.’
“It was a strange feeling, because normally everything is so tense around the result of those games.”
He thought of his children when Delph left
At the end of the group stage, Fabian Delph temporarily left the squad to be at the birth of his third child.
The decision for the Manchester City player to travel home was taken before the World Cup began, with Southgate drawing on his own experience.
“I nearly missed the births of both of my children and both were around international weeks,” said Southgate.
“One, I reported late for the game and got left out. The other I had literally just got back from Spain and walked through the door as my wife was going into theatre.
“I looked back later and thought ‘that’s not something I should miss’ and I knew it was an important moment for Fabian.
“There was a moment that his wife must have felt so much pressure to deliver at the drop of a hat and there is a moment when you think ‘a couple of players have knocks, we might need Delphy’.
“Then you remember that I have always talked to the players about family being most important. It’s one thing to say something, but your actions speak louder. He had our full support.”
He always knew England would beat Colombia
Highlights: Colombia 1-1 England (3-4 pens)Perhaps the defining moment of England’s campaign was the heart-stopping victory over Colombia in the last 16.
Not only did it give them their first penalty shootout win at a World Cup, it allowed Southgate to “exorcise demons” of his own miss against Germany at Wembley in the semi-finals of Euro ’96.
Despite his history, and England’s wretched record with spot-kicks, Southgate was unwavering in his belief his team would prevail on that night in Moscow.
“Even after Jordan Henderson missed for us, I still believed,” he said. “I’ve seen it before that when one penalty is missed, then the next miss is the real turning point. I still thought there was a good chance Jordan Pickford would save one.
“Before then, during the match, we were the better team. Colombia had the huge high of the equaliser and there were a lot more of their fans.
“Once we got to half-time in extra time, there was a chance to reset. We managed to get a couple of players on the pitch that we knew were in our first five for taking penalties.
“I knew in my mind ‘however long it takes, however long we have to be here, I believe we’ll go through’.”
Dier got a dressing-room standing ovation
It was Eric Dier who scored the decisive penalty, one that created a moment of English football history and sent them on the way to the quarter-finals.
In the aftermath, Southgate consoled Colombia’s Mateus Uribe, who struck the bar with his spot-kick, before returning to the dressing room.
“I’ve walked in those shoes so I know what he would have to face,” said Southgate. “On a human level, you’re seeing a young kid who is suffering.
“In the dressing room afterwards, you usually have a couple of minutes to speak with the players, but that night, I didn’t say anything.
“Eric Dier walked back in and everyone stood and clapped. I went into another room with the staff, took a deep breath and just sat there. Everyone was exhausted. We felt like we’d have achieved our minimum target, which freed us to go again.”
He wanted rid of the waistcoat
The waistcoat was even copied by a Southgate lookalikeSouthgate became synonymous with his waistcoat, which was omnipresent as England made their way around Russia. So famous did his attire become, there were reports of a surge of waistcoat sales.
The manager, though, couldn’t wait to be free of it.
“It was too hot for a jacket and the options were limited,” he said. “I’m not superstitious, but it did become symbolic for the fans – even if I couldn’t wait to get rid of it at the end of the tournament.
“Maybe there’s a chance to auction it at some point, but we haven’t changed our suits yet.”
England celebrated after the third-place play-off
England’s run was ended in the semi-finals by Croatia, after which they were defeated by Belgium in the third-place play-off.
The night of that final game, just before they were due to fly home, the whole squad gathered with what Southgate described as a “a lot of beer”.
“We had a brilliant night,” he said. “There were a lot of individual moments, but everyone was there. There was music playing and it was a lot of fun. It was nice for the group to reflect and enjoy each other’s company.
“You’ll never get that group of people together ever again. You think you’ll be friends forever, that the group will be stronger, but even that night there were players talking about finishing international football and some of the staff have gone on to do other things.
“It was important for us as a team to enjoy that moment.”
World Cup 2018: Belgium 2-0 England highlightsHe had a ‘dip’ after the tournament
England’s players went almost straight into the new season after the World Cup, while Southgate had to plan for their Nations League matches in the autumn.
And he admitted he struggled with readjusting to normality on his return home.
“We had been involved in the biggest event in the world for that month, then you are back to normal life,” he said. “Coaches from other sports have said they hit a dip after the Olympics. Absolutely I hit it. That period was really difficult.
“Before, I had 20 years of people shouting less complimentary things from their cars. Now, the reaction is different.
“When you become England manager, the change in profile and interest in what you’re doing is on another level. On the back of the summer, it’s on another level again.
“People have been happy to come up and speak about their experiences – what a great summer they had. How do you respond in those moments? You don’t want to be too proud, to get carried away, but if people give you praise you don’t want to throw it back.
“It’s lovely to accept that. The most interesting thing is they don’t always talk about winning – they talk about their enjoyment, how the team made them feel proud. With the national team, there are bigger things than just the winning – we have to keep that in mind.”