THE clock Greg Dyke installed at St George’s Park has been counting down for seven years.
Now, though, it is ticking louder than ever in Gareth Southgate’s ears.
Manager Gareth Southgate has a year to fine-tune his England side for the World Cup finals in Qatar[/caption]
Harry Kane hopes to follow a record-busting calendar year of 13 England goals and Emile Smith Rowe is one of many starlets keen to book a place for Qatar[/caption]
It is all about December 18, 2022, when the Lusail Stadium hosts the World Cup final.
There could hardly have been a bigger contrast between Monday night’s comfortable romp in the mountains of San Marino and the desert storm England want to kick up in Qatar this time next year.
Three Lions manager Southgate, though, barely had time to register the final tick in the qualifying box before turning his mind to the task ahead.
When former FA chairman Dyke stood up at Millbank Tower in September 2013 to demand an England revolution, his expectations looked more like a mirage than a prophecy.
Dyke famously had a clock put up at their training base in Burton that ticked down to a 2022 World Cup triumph.
And nobody — in France, Spain, Italy or Germany, either — laughs at the idea that England could do just that in Qatar next year.
That, now, is very much Southgate’s realistic target as well.
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England’s unbeaten 2021 means they will be among the seven top seeds, alongside the hosts, when the draw is made on April 1.
Events in Russia three years ago, underlined by that run to this summer’s Euro 2020 final, mean England have the respect of their rivals, who recognise that Southgate has transformed his side utterly from the rabble that suffered THAT humiliation at the hands of Iceland in 2016.
He said: “We’ve got a nice period now to go and prepare and reflect, not just on the last few months but the whole year.
“It’s a chance to breathe and think about everything really, because we’ve almost not had the time to even reflect on the summer, never mind games this autumn.
“If I think back over the year, like everybody else we were in a lockdown for part of it and we were playing matches behind closed doors at the start.
“Every international is a major event. There’s the squad selection which is quite intense when you’re going through all of that, the games themselves that were intense.
“To have a full (European) Championship and a full World Cup qualification campaign, we’ve had more matches than ever before I think.
We’ve created the environment where they can put things that are going on outside the England camps to one side and really flourish. I’m very, very proud.
“For the players it’s been a really, really intense couple of years.
“They’ve dealt with it brilliantly, they’ve kept that freshness and focus when they come with England.
“We’ve been able to create the environment where they can put things that are going on outside the England camps to one side and really flourish with the team.
“I’m very, very proud of what they’ve done.”
Southgate’s own England history shows nothing is cast in stone at this stage.
Injuries, loss of form, the emergence of alternatives, are more likely than not.
Of the side that played against Lithuania in the final qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, just six — John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Harry Kane — started against Tunisia in Volgograd.
Fast forward to the Euros and just four of the team who played in Kosovo — Tyrone Mings, Declan Rice, Raheem Sterling and skipper Kane — walked out at Wembley to face Croatia in June.
Southgate has eight matches before the World Cup to crystalise his thoughts.
Bukayo Saka rounded off England’s 10-0 win in San Marino and wants to put his Euro 2020 final shootout woe behind him with glory in Qatar[/caption]
England play two friendlies in March, four Nations League matches in 11 days during June and two more in September.
He added: “It’s unlikely teams are going to be able to play a friendly before Qatar.
“Premier League teams will play on the Saturday or Sunday, then you’d need three or four days before you’d play.
“You normally have to be in the country five days ahead of a major tournament anyway, so it might depend on which group we are drawn in and whether you are early in the tournament or a little bit later.
“But it’s the same for everybody, so it will be about the teams that adapt best.”
Southgate knows expectations will build over the next 12 months.
That clock will remind him on a regular basis.
Tick, tock . . .
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