Bryan Robson’s France heroics inspire and fuel England’s forward thinking | David Hytner

Gareth Southgate, then 11, was engrossed as Robson scored after 27 seconds in 1982 and his treasured memories linger

A little more than 40 years on and Gareth Southgate can still freeze-frame the moment. So can every England fan of his generation. The long throw had been flicked on and there was Bryan Robson, his hero, everybody’s hero, getting his body side-on, allowing the ball to run across him before volleying it down and in.

There were 27 seconds on the clock and England were 1-0 up against France. Robson would score again in the second half, a majestic leap and thumping header for 2-1 and England pulled clear to win 3-1. Their 1982 World Cup campaign was up and running.

Like countless kids in England, Southgate modelled himself on Robson. He had the same boots; he wore his shirt out at the front, tucked in at the back; he played in midfield. He even tried to run like him. Southgate ran that day, back from school to catch the France game, getting there just in time for Robson’s iconic opener.

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Southgate grew up as a fan of Manchester United, where Robson moved in 1981, so this was all impossibly brilliant for the impressionable 11-year-old; his first vivid World Cup memory. Southgate has vague recollections of the 1978 finals, having to support Scotland because England had not qualified, the ticker-tape and all the rest. But 1982 was his first real World Cup, when the love affair began.

He collected the stickers and he was heartbroken when England fell short in the second group phase, throwing on the half-fit Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking against Spain but failing to unlock the 0-0. They went home having not lost a game.

“Bryan was my hero and I remember both of his goals against France,” Southgate said. “It was my first World Cup watching England and also the Brazilian team of that tournament – Zico, Éder, Falcão, Sócrates …

“I was a midfield player like Bryan. Not of his class but I used to chip in with a few goals. To get to work with him as a player with England [Robson was the assistant manager from 1994-96] … I found that really difficult. The same with Steve Coppell [who managed Southgate at Crystal Palace]. They were both heroes of mine so, yeah, I never really got fully comfortable with that until later.”

As Southgate and England prepare for their World Cup quarter-final against France on Saturday, in Qatar’s northern outpost of Al Khor, it is strange to think it will be the first meeting between the nations at this competition since 1982. They have played each other on only one other occasion at the World Cup – the final group-stage tie in 1966 when England won 2-0 en route to the trophy.

Southgate has another France game in his thoughts, rather lower profile and less emotional but of real significance in terms of his England journey. It came in June 2017 at the Stade de France – his only managerial clash against Les Bleus – a 3-2 friendly defeat in which the gap between the nations was mapped out in graphic detail.

Gareth Southgate during an England training session in Al Wakrah.
Gareth Southgate is relaxed during an England training session in Al Wakrah. Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters

An 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé ran riot and so did Ousmane Dembélé. France were quicker, stronger, superior in every department. They had Raphaël Varane sent off when he conceded a penalty for 2-2 but it felt as though France had the extra man thereafter, Dembélé’s winner the least they deserved.

That was then, this is now and England approach the quarter-final as a team transformed – not only in personnel – comfortable in themselves and their system. Belief is high and it was reinforced by the manner of their 3-0 win against Senegal in the last 16.

Declan Rice was asked whether France ought to fear England rather than it being the other way around – as perhaps it was in 2017. “Yes,” the midfielder replied. “I don’t think we get the credit we deserve. If Holland and Argentina win their games comfortably, they get called masterclasses.

“With us, it always gets picked off. The negative things always come that way. If you look at the last couple of games, it’s been faultless. I think countries should be starting to fear us now because we’re a great team.”

Jude Bellingham, the man of the moment, also caught the mood. “We’re getting to that point now, confidence-wise, where we think we can try and take on anyone. We play with a fearlessness. Especially as young boys, we don’t really care about who we’re playing against.”

It is easy to worry about Mbappé. As England made the coach journey to the Senegal game, Luke Shaw said that they were able to watch the last 20 minutes of France’s 3-1 win against Poland. Mbappé scored twice during the period, giving him five for the tournament, a grip on the Golden Boot and a channel into the minds of England’s defenders.

It would be naive to focus purely on Mbappé. France have other threats. And yet his presence, his ability to produce at the decisive moment, is by some distance the most insistent line of questioning for Southgate and his players. How to stop Mbappé?

Kylian Mbappé scores France’s third goal against Poland and his fifth of the tournament with a right-foot shot.
Kylian Mbappé scores France’s third goal against Poland and his fifth of the tournament. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

England have made it this far in a 4-3-3 system, the balance of the midfield key. Since Jordan Henderson has come into the team, he has provided a measure of security around Bellingham, allowing the 19-year-old the freedom to push higher, to force turnovers, to drive with the ball. Rice adds his own qualities in front of the defence.

There has long been the feeling that when England face an elite-level opponent, Southgate will revert to a back three – using Kieran Trippier at right wing-back and Kyle Walker at right centre-half. This would offer a double bolt against Mbappé, who has operated off the left.

As an aside, it was a concern to see how the Senegal winger Ismaïla Sarr beat Walker and got away from him in one first-half incident. Walker, who had to foul him, fortunately escaping a yellow card, has played only twice since groin surgery on 4 October.

Southgate knows what everybody at home will want; stick with the back four, try to be assertive in midfield. If England are to lose, then better to go out swinging. He appeared to suggest that he was thinking along those lines, although there remains plenty of time before the game.

“We’re wanting to be positive and we feel we’ve done that so far in this tournament,” Southgate said, when asked whether he was considering a safer approach. “We’ve got energy in the team, we’ve got depth in the squad. So I don’t think we should be drifting too far from what we’ve been. You’ve obviously got to make allowances for the opposition and find out where you can exploit them but we’ve got good players to come in, as well.”


Rice made an upbeat final point, attacking the criticism that has followed England’s performances in the first half-hour of games – and the first halves against the USA and Wales.

“Against the big teams, there has always been a lot of talk about us using the ball,” Rice said. “In this tournament, we’ve pretty much controlled every game. We’ve had a fair share of possession, we’ve moved it really well.

“The opening stages [of games] have been really shaky because teams are really trying to stop us playing. But once we get that goal, they have to change. It opens up and then you really start to see us play. Against France, we’ve seen some weaknesses in them that we can try to exploit. It’s set up for a great game.”


David Hytner in Doha

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