Warning: Story contains coarse language
On Wednesday, England will play in its first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
Following Saturday’s professional 2-0 dismissal of Sweden, many England players are establishing themselves as national heroes, and tending to wounds from decades of underachievement for the national team.
In his latest Q&A with theScore, former England striker Dean Ashton reveals his particular admiration for Leicester City’s Harry Maguire, why Dele Alli has shut him up, and the reasons behind his staunch support for Raheem Sterling.
Were you surprised by how comfortable that was?
Dean Ashton: I was, actually. Before the game, we talked about Sweden not necessarily having much going forward, but I just thought we looked so comfortable. It looked like we’d been there before and it was fine. Even at 1-0 I thought we’d got the goal we needed and they’re not going to score.
You have to credit Gareth Southgate for that. I don’t think it’s just the players, I think it has to be down to Southgate’s mentality, the way he talks to his players, the way he makes them think. There are enough players in there that had the nightmare of the Iceland game, but he’s been able to turn it around.
For the first goal, Harry Maguire was challenging Emil Forsberg in the air. Was that a Swedish mishap or down to England’s movement for set plays?
DA: I think it’s down to the movement. That “love train” that Glenn Hoddle talked about in the commentary that we had is difficult to combat. You saw Forsberg was trying to mark another player and then he tried to leap for the ball, but he’s never going to beat Maguire.
What’s great to watch is that we’re so aggressive when it comes to the set plays. Maguire, John Stones, Harry Kane … we’ve got those really aggressive players that, if they go up against a Forsberg or someone who’s not naturally the best header of the ball, we are going to win it. Maguire’s header was wonderful.
Dele Alli wasn’t having the best tournament before his goal. Do you expect to see a different player now?
DA: I do. I tweeted out that Alli should’ve been dropped for Marcus Rashford’s pace on the outside for this game but, you know what, he can tell me to go and fuck myself. That’s his job to correct us doubters that think he’s not had a great tournament or influencing games like we would expect from an attacking midfielder. Who cares about the critics if you come up with the second goal in the quarter-final of a World Cup?
That’s what I love about football. As a player, no matter what anybody says, you can always have that moment that sticks it up to somebody or proves people wrong. Fair play to him, he’s had his injury troubles but he knows how to get into the positions.
At the 2014 World Cup, Maguire and Alli were both playing in the third tier. This must resonate with you.
DA: I’m so pleased. I’ve been there, I’ve come from League One and the Championship to get myself to the Premier League and England. It’s great to see these players grinding themselves out of those difficult leagues and getting over those mental difficulties to get themselves into the Premier League. It shows a real hunger and desire that we’ve missed over the last few years to get ourselves to where England is now. There’s a real togetherness.
Why do you think there are so many England internationals who have emerged from the lower leagues?
DA: You’re having to fight so hard to get to the Premier League and you have the humbleness that comes from playing week in, week out in the lower leagues. You understand how hard it is to make it as a player. Then you’ve got young players who just make it straight away in the Premier League and in the England squad who don’t have to work as hard to get there. You can see the difference in players like Maguire, Jordan Pickford, Kieran Trippier, and a glimpse from Jordan Henderson. They’re so hungry and desperate to make it.
It proves how good the pyramid system is in English football, and if you do make it into the Premier League, you have the experience to show you belong at the top level.
Do you think Raheem Sterling overthinks what he does for England because of all the criticism he’s received?
DA: No, and I am shouting, screaming, and arguing with friends, family, and other people within football about how good I think Sterling is. We need him. We need him to make these runs and get in behind. If Kane would’ve finished that chance in the first half, that was Sterling who made the run. I’m trying to get through to people how important he is to our team.
Look, he is frustrating. Every time he goes through I’m praying that he scores and justifies why I’m backing him. He needs a bit more calmness, but he is playing a different role (from Manchester City) as well. He’s making the runs and stretching defences, and I can’t tell you how important that is if you’re a centre-forward or a midfield player.
If you were in your prime and up front for England rather than Kane, how many would you have scored?
DA: You can’t compare. No matter how much experience I had in the Premier League and being with England squads, I don’t think I can compare myself to Kane. He’s been there and done it. We’ve got to give credit to the way Kane has conducted himself, played, led the line, and captained. Without him, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are.
As much as I could dream about being in his position, how dare I compare myself to him when I haven’t been in the high-pressure situations that he’s been in.
Would Pickford have been your No. 1 at the start of the tournament?
DA: He was. I told a lot of the English radio stations and the press that if I had to pick somebody it would be Pickford because I liked his demeanour and mentality. He believes in himself and is confident, and that’s what you need from a goalkeeper.
He’s stepped up to the mark in the most pressurised situation. He’s been fantastic and deserves every credit he’s got. It’s time for everybody – especially myself, other pundits, and anybody that’s doubted the way England have played – to eat a massive slice of humble pie. We’ve got to really believe the way they’ve gone about it – I wanted them to start with Rashford and Danny Rose, but Southgate did the business without those changes.
Who was your man of the match against Sweden?
DA: It was probably Henderson – another player people have underestimated. We look at him and wonder if he creates that much, but he played a great ball into Sterling to put him one-v-one. The amount of work Henderson gets through is absolutely incredible. Even when Pickford made a great save to deny Sweden’s best chance, who was there to block the next shot? It was Henderson. He puts in the most work to give the rest of the players the freedom to play.
Which player have you fallen in love with most at this tournament?
DA: Maguire. Before the tournament I thought ‘what a good defender,’ but out of the back-three, I saw him as the biggest weakness. I thought that teams would isolate him and look to get down the sides of him, but he’s been a rock. He’s been immense. He’s been a threat in every set play, and with the way he’s playing, it wouldn’t surprise me if Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, Juventus, and Bayern Munich were all looking at Maguire as a potential centre-half for Champions League football next season.
The semi-final will be a big hurdle, but if England reaches the final, its opponent will be France or Belgium. Do you think England is capable of beating either of those teams?
DA: Normally I would say no, but I think how dominant we are from set plays give us a real chance against any team. France and Belgium would both be worried about how good and creative we are from set plays. When you talk about a high-pressured game and just need that breakthrough, a set play can be the difference and give you the edge. I’m not getting ahead of myself, I don’t think we’ll easily get into the final, but if we do get there, I think we’ve got as good a chance as France or Belgium to win the World Cup. That’s incredible.
This interview has been edited and condensed. If you have a question for Dean, please submit it to @danieljrouse on Twitter.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)