LONDON - England manager Gareth Southgate was candid about where his team are in football’s pecking order after an unconvincing 1-0 win over Slovenia sent them into the World Cup finals on Thursday.
Until skipper Harry Kane struck in the fourth minute of stoppage time there was every chance England’s confirmation of a place at the Russian showpiece next year would have been greeted with boos from a frustrated Wembley Stadium crowd.
A young England team again lacked guile — a common criticism throughout a qualifying campaign that has been comfortable without ever stirring any real optimism.
Yet Southgate, who took over from Sam Allardyce after one game in Group F and has sealed top spot with a game to spare, said the only thing that mattered for now was that England had completed their first task of making it to Russia.
“Tonight highlighted where we are,” he told reporters. “Was it the performance or the night we wanted? No, absolutely not.
“I think people want to come and see goals and be entertained. It’s blindingly obvious we could have played better. You know what you would like and what is realistic.
“Are we are going to become Spain in the next eight months? No we’re not. They have a squad full of players who have won Champions Leagues and league titles. We haven’t got players who have proved themselves on that stage.
“But now they have a chance to play on that stage at the World Cup. That was why it was imperative we got there.”
In the likes of Kane, with 11 goals in 22 internationals, Manchester United’s young striker Marcus Rashford and Kane’s Tottenham Hotspur team mate Dele Alli, who was suspended on Thursday, England do have exciting talent in their ranks.
There are other hopeful signs of an England resurgence in the younger age groups, but Southgate said patience was needed.
“They are young players and are giving everything for the shirt and they will improve in the next few years,” he said.
“They are suffering the consequences of 25, 30 or 40 years (of failure in major tournaments) and that’s not their fault,” he added, with England having disappointed since their only major tournament win at the 1966 World Cup on home soil.
“In certain areas maybe there are young players who won’t be ready. My desire and ideal way of playing and what we need to do over the next year are maybe two different things.”
While the quality of the performances has left a lot to be desired, England have developed a knack of scoring late goals throughout the qualifying campaign — namely a last-ditch winner away to Slovakia, a late Kane equaliser in Scotland and now the England captain’s last-gap intervention at Wembley.
“We are having to find ways to win by being a bit more savvy because things are not flowing,” said Southgate. “But we have got goalscorers. We are a side that scores late goals not concede them, which is becoming a bit of a theme.”
While the England manager can look forward to a World Cup next year his Slovenia counterpart Srecko Katanec said after the match that he would stand down as national team coach with their World Cup qualification hopes in tatters.
Reporting by MArtyn Herman, editing by Ken Ferris