The Three Lions have the chance to reach just the second major tournament finale in their history on Wednesday as they take on Croatia in a mouth-watering Luzhniki Stadium semi-final.
Following in the footsteps of the heroes of 1966 had looked a pipe dream this summer, but Southgate has created an impressive bond and shaped his promising team into World Cup challengers.
The former defender suffered disappointment when England last reached the last four of a major tournament, missing the crucial spot-kick as Terry Venables’ men bowed out of Euro ’96 in a penalty shootout.
That pain that still haunts the manager, but years of English disappointment is not being felt by players ahead of the biggest match in a generation.
“I think we feel that is of no bearing to this team,” Southgate said. “We’ve been consistent about that. From the off, that was my problem because I’m part of that history.
“They’re getting blamed for what my generation and generations that followed did. But these guys had an opportunity to start from scratch and create their own history. That’s what we’re focused on.
“Most of them weren’t born when a lot of the stories we’re talking about happened, so why as a coach would I try and put that at their door?
“They should be judged on them as a team. I think, to be fair, the public have done that.
“They’ve seen we’ve got good lads who are incredibly proud to play, and are playing in a slightly different style to the one we’ve seen for a few years – playing with confidence on a big stage. So, they should – we’ve got trust in them doing that.”
Southgate praised his players for their diligence and commitment ahead of a game that he believes his players approach it as well prepared as possible.
It might be tempting to hope for good luck at such a crucial juncture, but the only superstitious spell in the England manager’s coaching career was fleeting.
“I’ll tell you a story about me and superstitions,” Southgate said.
“When I was managing at Middlesbrough, we had a game at Reading and I was under a bit of pressure. When I went to get changed at the hotel, I’d forgotten my socks. So, I went to the kit-man and I borrowed a pair of black goalkeeper socks. Anyway, we won and the staff made this big thing about my lucky socks, saying I had to wear them next game.
“So, we were at home and I went to get changed and I thought, ‘Hmmm, shall I wear those socks?’. We still needed the win but I thought, ‘No, it’s ridiculous’. So, we lost the game and then on the Tuesday we were playing again, so I thought, ‘Well, I’d better put the socks on’. So, I did and we won 2-0. And then I went upstairs and got sacked.
“So, really, from that moment, superstitions have rather gone out the window.”
Southgate laughed as he regaled the story, with his relaxed demeanour slightly surprising ahead of the biggest match of his managerial career.
“Let me tell you, whether we win or lose the game, my life will not change,” the England boss said with a smile.
“I will go home, take the dogs for a run, disappear to Yorkshire, but it is of course a chance to be involved in something incredibly special.
“I have been in sport in different areas for long enough to know what my life is day to day.
“I will get more attention and it won’t be easy to go out for meals if I am in certain places but it won’t change my view on the world or the things I attempt to do.”
But the odds on Southgate receiving a knighthood are sure to shorten further if England reach the World Cup final.
“They’ll be the best team we’ve played in terms of what they’re capable of doing with the ball, and what individuals are capable of, definitely,” the Three Lions boss added.
“For us as a team, yes, it’s another chance to create a small piece of history.
“We’re only the second team to reach a semi-final out of our country, and that’s quite significant.
“In 1996, we had every game at Wembley and that was an advantage for us.
“We’ve got to keep getting over those hurdles and I know we talked about the success of the younger teams but this is a much harder, much bigger levels for the players and the belief is building as things are happening.
“The more of these tests we can come through, the better, not just for now, but moving forward.”
Zlatko Dalic says the UAE will always be close to his heart as his Gulf coaching spell helped shape his pursuit of World Cup glory.
Just 18 months ago the Croatian left the Emirates when a three-year stint as coach of Al Ain ended after he came so close to making them Asia’s best club side.
A missed penalty by Douglas was crucial in an agonising 3-2 AFC Champions League final loss on aggregate to Korean outfit Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016.
Now Dalic stands on the brink of the greatest achievement of all, having led his national team to a World Cup semi final against England.
But when the 51-year-old steps out at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow tonight, he will recall how his seven-year Arabian adventure helped shape this momentous achievement.
First with Saudi Arabian clubs Al-Faisaly and Al Hilal and then at Al Ain in 2014, where he was immediately under pressure to restore their fortunes after struggles with Jorge Fossati and Quique Sanchez Flores.
Dalic duly delivered with the UAE President’s Cup, the Arabian Gulf League title and Arabian Gulf Super Cup before Champions League heartbreak.
“I’m very happy with my time in the Gulf, it was fantastic, I learned and enjoyed so much,” he told Sport360. “I will never forget the Emirates, never forget Al Ain, it is my club.
“I spent three years there and won the Champions League, also reached the semi finals, and after that I came to the national team. It was a big change for me, but now I’m in the World Cup. It’s a dream, I’m so happy.”
After a struggle in qualification, Dalic was appointed in October and sparked Croatia into a second-placed finish behind Iceland with a vital win over Ukraine and subsequent play-off success against Greece.
“How it all happened, it is fantastic,” he added. “But this is life, this is what you work for.
“This is the national team, this is my country and this is the World Cup. This is the best job for me, forever.
“In the future I can be coach of Brazil or wherever, but this will still be the best job for me and I want to do well in this.”
Dalic is certainly doing well, matching his country’s best-ever achievement of a last-four spot in the 1998 finals, where they were beaten by hosts France.
Thank you for supporting my National team Croatia!🇦🇪🇸🇦🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/r4m4nqxtF1— Zlatko Dalić (@DalicZlatko) 10 July 2018
But, with players like Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, he always felt they could “surprise”. “I believe in the team,” he said.
Captain Modric, who helped Real to a third successive Champions League trophy in May, will be a key figure against Gareth Southgate’s men.
At 33, he is an example to every young footballer according to teammate Vedran Corluka.
“It’s all down to hard work,” said the defender of Modric. “After the game, before the game, he looks after his body. This is a professional player and every young player needs to look at Luka and how they need to look after their body and to be at this level.
“He won the Champions League, but playing for your club is something different to the national team. It’s about Croatian passion. It’s a special feeling to play for your country and Luka feels the same and wants to help us do well.”
Midfielder Paul Pogba has dedicated France’s World Cup semi-final win over Belgium to the young footballers rescued from flooded caves after an 18-day ordeal in Thailand.
Samuel Umtiti’s second-half goal in St Petersburg was enough to get Les Bleus past Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils and into Sunday’s Moscow final against either England or Croatia.
The players were quick to express their emotion at the result on social media after the full-time whistle.
Pogba posted a picture on Instagram of the 12 boys, aged between 11 and 17, who entered the Tham Luang cave system in Chiang Rai province with their 25-year-old coach on June 23 and became trapped when heavy rain cut off their way out.
He wrote alongside it: “This victory goes to the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong #thaicaverescue #chiangrai”
The Manchester United man also indicated there was still work to do for Didier Deschamps’ side in Russia, saying of Tuesday night’s victory: “It’s great but it’s not finished.”
Forward Kylian Mbappe posted some action pictures from the match and said “WHAT A DREAM”.
Defender Raphael Varane simply posted a picture of himself celebrating alongside the words: “En finale.”
Fellow defender Lucas Hernandez was similarly joyous, saying simply: “Direction … LA FINALLLLLLLEEE !!”
Former England striker Chris Sutton, working as a World Cup pundit, accused Belgium of “bottling” it on the big stage and stuck the knife into goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who had suggested England counterpart Jordan Pickford was too short to be a great keeper.
He wrote on Twitter: “France deserved it … Varane and Umtiti outstanding defenders, Mbappe the star of the World Cu, Belgium bottled it once again in a big tournament… big guy Courthois beaten at his near post… I think little Pickford would have saved it…”
Belgium defender Thomas Meunier gave credit to France and turned his attention to Saturday’s play-off clash. His tweet read: “Hats off to @equipedefrance for qualification. Go to the end now! As for us, we still have a game! Write the history of Belgian football with a magnificent 3rd place! Saturday will be #REDTOGETHER!”
Alex Witsel is also keen for Roberto Martinez’s side to claim third place and the midfielder paid tribute to supporters who made the trip, sentiments echoed by winger Yannick Carrasco and striker Michy Batshuayi.