Gareth Southgate has warned of a “powerful wave of emotion” from Denmark that is set to come crashing down on Wembley at Wednesday’s European Championship semi-final. ith England buzzing at the prospect of football coming home again for the final matches of the tournament, Southgate fears that the Danes’ huge emotional investment in the competition is in danger of being overlooked.
It is only three weeks since Christian Eriksen collapsed in the middle of Denmark’s opening group game against Finland in Copenhagen to leave team-mates fearing for his life.
Thankfully, the former Tottenham player made a swift recovery in hospital, but since then the whole of Denmark has been on a mission to repeat their 1992 success in honour of their stricken playmaker.
Southgate said: “We talk about perspective in sport but we rarely have it. This was a moment that brought it home for all of us.
“I can also imagine what it has done for the Danish team, their bond.
“We have talked about the things we have been through, but what the Denmark players went through that day – the way their captain was and the way the group was – and how that would have connected with their supporters…
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“That’s pretty powerful. They are riding a wave of emotion for certain and that’s a powerful force that’s coming to Wembley.
“Those things definitely have an impact on your thinking. We talk about pressure a lot and we lose perspective of what that might be when we play sport.
“But I know our players are at their best when they are calm and playing another game and the thinking process is really clear.
“Clearing that clutter away and clearing that noise away for the last couple of games and ahead of this next one is a crucial part of our preparation really.”
In the early hours of Sunday morning after the thrilling quarter-final win over Ukraine, Southgate was reminiscing with his assistant Steve Holland about how it all started.
It was perhaps a way to take a breather before focusing on the question that is going to eat up both them and the whole nation, hopefully for an entire week. How is it going to end?
The journey from picking their first England under-21 side to face Moldova in Reading in September 2013 to a senior international semi-final is a long one, but it is one the nation has travelled with them before.
To Moscow… to Guimaraes… and now to Wembley. But there is method to expedition planning so far. From those early days nurturing the future of English football, he has always aimed to set up the semi-finals as the Three Lions’ base camp.
“But they will be prepared and they will be ready mentally and we have got guys who have won trophies now and know what that has taken. But they have also gained confidence from that.”
Which is why the idea of a shared journey is so relevant. “Ahead of the World Cup, our first aim was to win a knockout game,” Southgate said. “That was where we saw the benchmark.
“But we have talked with the junior teams for a long time about our aim being to regularly get in to the last four of tournaments.
“Then we would be in the mix and knocking on the door and learning how to win in those critical moments. Our junior teams have started to achieve that quite consistently.
“Now we’ve knocked off so many hoodoos or perceived barriers already and I feel like this group of players will feel this is just the next challenge.
“Three years ago although there was massive disappointment after the semi-final there was a feeling we’d come a long way. Now we’ve replicated what we did there, but that won’t be enough to fulfil the group. That’s a positive sign.”
Incredibly, three of the players who won in Rome had been with Southgate and Holland all the way.
“I was talking with Steve late after the game – our first under 21 game the two full-backs were John Stones and Luke Shaw. Harry Kane was on the bench.
“When you work with them at 19, 20, 21, a large part of their character is formed. But it is brilliant to see how they continue to progress and they become fathers, they become experienced players.
“They go through this journey of life and one of the beauties of coaching is that you get to witness those things and influence them in a very small way.
“At the end it’s down to the players, they have to find their own way. They will listen to people, they will watch other players, learn from the coaches. But ultimately it is down to how far they want to go.”