GARETH SOUTHGATE admitted it was the most chastening night of his six-year England reign.
But if you were expecting Tuesday’s 4-0 humiliation by Hungary to change him, then think again.
Southgate may have been stung by criticism of his alleged caution and negativity — but he is adamant that a more gung-ho approach in the second half at Molineux is what caused his side to suffer their biggest home thrashing in almost a century.
A man who once turned the nation on at two major tournaments — in the words of his Atomic Kitten anthem — is not interested in sexy football.
Southgate believes there has been a ‘strange’ agenda against him during a horrible run of four Nations League fixtures, during which England failed to win or even score from open play.
He said: “I have found the ten days strange in terms of the narrative, as I found our last Nations League campaign strange too.
“I didn’t agree with everything that was suggested. Some of the desire to see open play… we saw against Hungary that you’ve got to have the balance of a team right.
“With a club, maybe if you’re at the top, and you’ve got a long time working with the players, you can play a more expensive game — but even the top teams, they’re bloody good defensively, they’re good on transition, the balance of everything is right.
“So the idea that we can just play lots of attacking players and rely on talent to win matches… it’s not the way it is.
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“And that was a reminder to myself in the second half that ‘OK, that’s a gamble’.
“You go for a gamble to try to win the game because you think that’s important. But what happened can happen.
“We’ve raised optimism and expectation. That’s understandable, because people assume there’s going to be progress.
“But that doesn’t always work that way. The competition at the top level of international football is unbelievably high.”
The defining result of Southgate’s reign, the 2-0 defeat of Germany at last year’s Euros, was achieved with a cagey approach.
And England’s best performance since that tournament — a 5-0 trouncing of an Albania side who were good enough to beat Hungary twice in World Cup qualifiers — came with five defenders and two holding midfielders in the starting line-up.
But when the Molineux crowd turned on Southgate with boos and cries of ‘You don’t know what you’re doing!’ it felt as if we might be bracing ourselves for one of those crushing England inquests which were all-too- familiarin years gone by.
Yet this was no repeat of Roy Hodgson’s infamous ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here’ press conference in the aftermath of the 2016 defeat by Iceland.
Nor Steve McClaren’s floundering after the ‘Wally with the Brolly’ night against Croatia in 2007.
Southgate, England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, handled the flak with intelligence and good grace.
He suggested his patriotic pride makes the current criticism more stinging than it would have been for jobbing foreign managers Fabio Capello and Sven-Goran Eriksson.
He said: “Of course it is. Because I’m a proud Englishman.
“I’ve taken the job to try and make English football better.
“And I’ve had huge pride in being able to match the achievements of some predecessors who I hold in the highest esteem — and go better than them.
“So of course, it’s painful, you can’t park it, it lives with you. But football management does.
“The hard part with international management is you don’t get a game on Saturday to put it right.
“Now myself and my staff, we’ve got to live with this for the next few months. The players have to clear their heads, they’ll come back with fresh minds, looking forward to a World Cup with excitement.”
I’m really clear what went wrong. And what would need to be right to make sure that nights like that don’t happen again.
Southgate will hold a full de-brief with his staff before a family holiday next month.
But he insists his self-belief has not been shaken by England’s shock drubbing — and that he will use the abuse he has suffered as motivation.
Southgate, 51, said: “I’ll use it as fuel. Because when you have disappointment and you read negativity, you want to fight and prove people wrong.
“But I’ve done that all my life, so that there’s not an extra incentive because of a night like Tuesday. I know nights like that can happen.
“They’re not pleasant. I’ve seen it with others. But they are the realities of football.
“If I was a younger manager that hadn’t been through the experiences before, I might be thinking, ‘what’s gone wrong? How did that happen?’
“But we couldn’t keep flogging the first-choice players. That would be detrimental further down the line.
“We might have got away with it but I think it was a big risk.
“Now you think ‘God, wish we’d done it’. But actually that would have been selfish to try and keep pressure off me, rather than what’s right for England going to a World Cup.
“I’m really clear on what went wrong. And what would need to be right to make sure that nights like that don’t happen again.
“I’ve been in football for 35 years. I know how it works. And I know how quickly opinion changes.
“But you don’t carry it [criticism] with you as a scar.
“It hardens you. It provides resolve and I’ve had plenty of those experiences as a player and manager.
“It’s just not realistic to go through six years as England manager and not have something similar to this happen.”