Gareth Southgate is lucky to have keen talent in his England squad

England’s happy hour: Conor Coady and Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s joy at scoring at Wembley was football at its purest… Gareth Southgate is lucky to have ability and desire from back-ups

  • Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Conor Coady were delighted to score for England  
  • Playing for the international side has become a burden for some players
  • But Gareth Southgate’s squad players showed their passion against Wales 
  • He has a group of understudies that would happily step up in big games  

Danny Ings’ first goal of note came for Dorchester Town in a home defeat by Ebbsfleet United in the Conference South just over 10 years ago. On loan from Bournemouth, 18-year-old Ings was described by Dorchester manager Ashley Vickers as someone who ‘will bring us impetus and verve’.

Four years later 17-year-old Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored for the first time. His goal came as a Sheffield United loanee playing for Stalybridge Celtic in a 4-2 win over Hyde United in the Conference North. He still occasionally watches it back on YouTube and still remembers the celebration.

‘It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it,’ Calvert-Lewin told this newspaper three winters ago.

Danny Ings (bottom) and Conor Coady (top) scored their first goals for England on Thursday

In a week when both players have created new memories with their first goals for England, it feels instructive to remember where they came from.

Goalkeeper Nick Pope, impressive in his own way in the win against Wales on Thursday, has similar stories to tell about his days being smashed by opposition centre halves in non-League football with Bury Town of the Isthmian League after being released from Ipswich’s academy.

‘I think he can go all the way to the top,’ said Bury Town’s manager Richard Wilkins back then. Pope was 16 at the time.

So it takes time doesn’t it? That much we know. But what was illustrated at Wembley this week was that it can still be worth it when you get there.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Coady showed a love for the game during the 3-0 win over Wales

It is easy to be cynical about professional sport at times and there have been those over recent years who have looked so burdened by the pressure that playing for their country had threatened to become an inconvenience. 

But watching Calvert-Lewin, Ings and Conor Coady score this week provided an antidote to that and it was welcome. Football is in a strange way a little more pure when played in front of no fans. It ceases to become a show, a carnival and reverts to its core. Football for football’s sake. And the love of the game was evident at Wembley.

Our national sport will face a hard winter and Friday’s Premier League announcement about the reintroduction of pay-per-view matches was indicative of some cold, hard decisions to come. Therefore we will need some light to place against the shade and if Gareth Southgate’s team can play with a smile and some adventure then it will not do any harm.

Yes, this was only Wales’ second string and England were slow and ponderous until Jack Grealish sparked something altogether more positive with his cross for Calvert-Lewin’s opening goal in the 25th minute. As always, the nature of the opposition must be considered.

Southgate is lucky to have a group of determined squad players when he’s without key stars 

Still, England have played poorly against weak opposition on too many occasions to mention over the last 20 years and haven’t always appeared to be enjoying it very much either.

Southgate has endured some well-publicised problems in recent weeks and his message to those members of his ever-widening playing roster that further breaches of Covid-19 guidelines will not be tolerated was certainly due. But he is also a fortunate coach in that he finds himself with a stream of young, keen talent to call upon when deprived of regular starters.

This will be important over the months to come. With so many Premier Leagues games shoe-horned into the calendar and thoughts of a winter break long since abandoned, Southgate will find player availability a real issue this season.

Club managers like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jose Mourinho have already fired their opening shots and the clocks haven’t even gone back yet. So Southgate will need a deep pool and Wednesday provided further evidence that he may just have one.

The England boss won’t always be able to call on his first choice players during a tough season

Sunday night’s game against Belgium is no friendly and senior players will return. Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson are expected to play, for example, as is goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. If the Everton keeper does indeed start then he is fortunate. Pope looks ready for a run in place of a goalkeeper who has been in steady decline at club level for 18 months and longer.

But we know now that Calvert-Lewin, Ings, Coady and Grealish would not be fazed by a request to play against the No 1-ranked team in the world. Coady and Grealish looked natural fits for international football on Thursday. 

Some grow when called upon and some do not. Coady and Grealish not only fulfilled their own roles against Wales but they dragged other players with them on a night that did not begin particularly well for England.

Players like Jack Grealish showed they are a good fit for England and will step up when needed

Increasingly, Southgate himself remains fundamental to it all. The 50-year-old has slowly developed an authority and resonance that stretches beyond the confines of a training field. 

One shudders to think how someone such as Fabio Capello or Sven Goran Eriksson would have attempted to navigate a way through something as complicated as the FA’s response to the pandemic. England have the right man at the helm and the players as much as anybody should be grateful.

Southgate struck a different tone as he spoke about his players this week. He had clearly had enough of their carelessness and recklessness away from the field and wanted them to know.

Southgate is fundamental to that work ethic and has slowly developed a balanced authority 

Viewed in the light of the Wales performance, his timing looks to have been perfect. England needed a jolt to free them from the torpor of their recent performances against Iceland and Denmark, something to remind them of what international football is really supposed to be about.

Wales were complicit too. We expected Ryan Giggs’ team to be better than that and Roberto Martinez’s Belgian side certainly will be. If Southgate’s team start as slowly as they did on Thursday when they reconvene at the national stadium on Sunday night they will be swept off the park.

But England played happy for an hour on Thursday and that provided an uplift in the middle of yet another dark week for the country. If your heart didn’t smile a little when Coady scored his goal then it may be time to spend your evenings doing something else.

Just look at his face, as a famous commentator once said.

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