There is a reason why San Marino is the lowest ranked team in world football. England’s opponents have scored only one goal in their last 25 games on Thursday-evening and have lost all but two of the last 40.
Their two notable results since a 0-0 home draw against Estonia were two other more recent goalless matches against Liechtenstein and Gibraltar.
So when Gareth Southgate looks back on his first memory of watching England, the fact that it was Luther Blissett’s hat-trick in a 9-0 win over Luxembourg in 1982 felt fitting.
Gareth Southgate wants his English side to show their authority against San Marino
At the time, Luxembourg also beat boys. In the few years leading up to that game, they had lost to Burma, the United States and Japan. They had won one game – in 1980 – a 1-0 win against Thailand.
You see, there are easy games in international football, even though England has done its best over the years to disprove the theory. That was definitely 38 and a half years ago and this is another Thursday night. San Marino is a free hit for Southgate and he wants his team to enjoy it.
“There is always that responsibility to entertain,” Southgate said Wednesday night.
‘With England we connect with a different TV audience. The games are on terrestrial TV. It goes beyond the hardcore Premier League fans. It’s grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle. They are shared moments. That’s how we all began to have memories of England.
England has prepared for the clash and is widely expected to win by a huge margin
‘We know what big nights in England mean and we all remember where we were for certain qualifiers. As a kid I had a Luther Blissett hat-trick in my head. There will be something in this game that will hopefully linger in kids’ minds. We must never lose sight of that romance.
‘We try to play well. We are aware of that. We tried to get out of the long duration of those nights when people were throwing paper airplanes on the field.
‘We haven’t always managed to get it right, but it is our intention. Entertaining is just as important as winning and we feel that responsibility. England is hugely important to people and that is sometimes a bit overrun by the great (Premier League) machine we work with. ‘
Southgate has a point about the Premier League but is also missing a point. England was too easily pushed aside by the Premier League for too long. Football, among the likes of Roy Hodgson and Fabio Capello, was too often unavailable. Sometimes absolutely everything else was preferred.
The Southgate team have faced a number of challenges since their flight to the semi-finals of the last World Cup, but they are without a doubt much easier on the eye.
Southgate, responsible for his 50th game on Thursday night, has shown some cautious tendencies lately, but remains a manager who fundamentally wants his best players to play free.
“There were times in my day when we went into these games with fear and wondered what would happen if we didn’t score until the 60th minute,” he said. ‘I want this team to score goals. I want them to play this game knowing they will have the ball and look forward to it. They should enjoy their football. ‘
There are certainly tougher challenges ahead for Southgate and his team. In the short term they will be in Albania on Sunday and next Wednesday they will face Poland again at Wembley. In addition, there are the summer euros, a tournament to which the pandemic is still at the mercy. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces scattered around, and Southgate admitted he doesn’t know how or where it will all fit together.
In terms of preparation, it will remain far from ideal. With no key players this week, he has only two games left – friendlies in June against Austria and Romania – for the European Championship.
“It’s very difficult for planning,” Southgate agreed. ‘We have almost three different scenarios running. Best and worst case and one somewhere in the middle.
‘It’s a frustrating environment and you see stories about other international sports such as cricket and rugby and how difficult that is for everyone.
England portrayed playing against San Marino in 2014. The team is currently ranked lowest in world football
It’s nothing to complain about. It is a party that is always on the move and we have to adapt better than everyone else. ‘
This is certainly not how Southgate envisioned the second phase of his time as a coach. But while looking for positives, he can find one in the return to form – and to his squad – from part of his World Cup squad from three summers ago.
Jesse Lingard and John Stones are back, as is Luke Shaw. Everyone wants to play on Thursday night. Just like Harry Kane, of course.
It’s San Marino. Who wouldn’t do that?