There was a moment on Thursday night, as England fought to keep Italy at bay, when Jordan Pickford looked to his left and noticed something was wrong.
Luke Shaw was out of position. A rare sight, granted, but a concerning one. What if Italy exploited it? And then, suddenly, he clocked another figure in white.
‘Next thing I see is Harry Kane at left-back,’ says Pickford. The same Harry Kane who that night became England’s record scorer with his 54th international goal.
The same Harry Kane who received a congratulatory FaceTime call on Saturday morning from the Prime Minister.
There are plenty other superstar strikers who would consider hurtling the length of the pitch to fill in at left-back a fair way down their list of priorities.
Jordan Pickford says his England team-mates are willing to go the extra mile for success
Harry Kane was seen filling in at left-back on the night he became England’s record scorer
‘If you want to be winners, you’ve got to suffer,’ says Pickford, speaking ahead of England’s qualifier against Ukraine today. ‘It can’t always be nice easy rides.
‘To see that from the captain, from the centre-forward, doing that just shows what kind of character he is — but also what kind of characters we have in the squad.
‘It’s that team togetherness, that hard-working squad mentality, which we showed on Thursday. We need to continue that to become winners.’
That’s the firm message coming out of the England camp now. The desire for glory and the mentality to deliver it. After all, this is a group of players who have achieved so much for their country yet still fallen short in the biggest moments, on the biggest stages, in the biggest tournaments.
Defeat in a World Cup semi-final in Russia. Penalty shoot-out heartbreak at Euro 2020. A quarter-final exit to France at the World Cup. Gareth Southgate admitted recently that he felt some of his England players did not believe, deep down, that they could beat France. They doubted themselves and, in a game they should have won, they lost.
The feeling lingered on Thursday night that in days of yore England probably would not have hung on when Italy turned up the heat and Shaw saw red. They probably would not have won.
But they did win. They battled and fought and, whilst playing poorly in the second half, they won the match. The first victory over the Azzurri in Italy since 1961. And after the game Harry Maguire said that if England don’t win the Euros next year, it will be a failure.
‘Harry’s right there,’ says Pickford. ‘We’ve sniffed at it. We’ve had the taste and been defeated. We want to be winners. When we look back in 20 years, we want to be known as a winning team in a major tournament for England.’
To do that, they know they must be ruthless. After the Italy game, all the staff celebrated Kane’s record-breaking achievement. Southgate presented him with a framed picture and a signed shirt. Kane delivered a heart-felt speech.
And then they drew a line under it. Thanks very much, well done, now move on.
Kane was all smiles in England’s training session at Tottenham’s Enfield base on Saturday
Pickford celebrates England’s 2-1 win over Italy on Thursday in their opening Euro qualifier
The 2-1 win over Italy in Naples was the first time England have won on Italian soil since 1961
The win over Italy was also Southgate’s 50th as the England manager — only the third to do so after Alf Ramsey and Walter Winterbottom — but even that’s not on his mind.
‘It means we can make it 51 today,’ said Southgate. ‘The past is irrelevant. We need to win. We need to be on six points when we leave Wembley. If we are going to be considered a really top team we have to back up our performance.’
Harry Kane, England’s new all-time record goalscorer, will be presented with a commemorative golden boot in front of a sold-out Wembley on Sunday.
Kane, who scored his record-breaking 54th international goal during Thursday’s 2-1 win in Italy and received a FaceTime call from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak yesterday (below), will be handed the memento before kick-off against Ukraine by FA chair Debbie Hewitt.
Jack Leslie, the first black player to receive an England call-up, will be awarded a posthumous honorary cap by the FA.
The inside-left was called up to the national team in 1925.
But he was denied an England appearance because of the colour of his skin after selectors learned about his heritage.
That ruthlessness extends to their opponents. Ukraine will feel the love at Wembley with more than 1,000 tickets going to refugees and the families that house them in the aftermath of the war.
Both teams will pose for a picture with the Ukraine flag before kick-off.
Of all England’s opponents, Ukraine is perhaps the one nation people wouldn’t mind losing to.
‘Well, I would,’ said Southgate. ‘We want to win games of football. Our job is to qualify. Our job is to represent our country with the pride that they’re going to represent their country with.
‘So I would be worried if our players don’t have that same level of motivation that Ukraine have. We’ve got to make sure our level of motivation and focus is what it was before the game in Italy. We had a lot of drive for that. Because we were still smarting from the World Cup, we were smarting from previous games against Italy. Now three days later we’ve got to get back to that start point.’
This mentality runs through many of the side now, even those who are fresh to the scene.
Jude Bellingham has brought that attitude. The 19-year-old, a superstar of the World Cup, shone once again on Thursday night, pushed further forward to combat Italy’s double midfield pivot. Speak to those close to Bellingham and they reveal a relentless, tough young player who is unafraid to question both his team-mates and his coaches.
Southgate laughs when he admits he’s seen the videos of Bellingham calling a Borussia Dortmund team-mate ‘f***ing s***.’
‘Well, he doesn’t hesitate to challenge,’ says Southgate. ‘I haven’t seen that quite the same way but I know exactly what you are talking about — I have seen that. But that is good. We don’t want to curb that edge, that drive.
Gareth Southgate oversaw his 50th win as England boss in Thursdays victory over Italy
Southgate talks to the press ahead of England’s next Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine
That is what making him the type of player he is. If you look back at big personality players over the years, part of that is what has made them the top players they are. That desire to win, hatred of losing — whichever it is.
‘That is a big part of his make-up and that is infectious on other people in terms of the way he plays.’
Southgate wants to see that influence and commitment off the pitch too.
Defender Shaw, for example, has remained with the England squad despite his red card against Italy that ruled him out of today’s game. It would have been easy to head back to his club Manchester United. It is impossible not to compare that with his United team-mate Marcus Rashford, the striker who pulled out of his fifth of the six non-tournament squads he has been selected in, citing an unspecified injury.
Rashford has since posted a picture of himself on holiday in the Big Apple with the caption: ‘downtime’.
‘Luke loves being with us,’ said Southgate, who insisted he had no issue with his frontman Rashford’s absence.
‘He wants to contribute where he can, he was able to help us with training as well. He epitomises the spirit of the group really. That togetherness and commitment is hugely important.’