The parties have died and the hangovers have abated. It’s time to get nervous again.
In anticipation of England’s World Cup quarter-final with Sweden on Saturday, theScore enjoyed another chat with Dean Ashton, where we discussed who he would add if England was granted a 24th squad member, whether he would temporarily leave the tournament if his wife gave birth, and why Emil Forsberg doesn’t scare him.
After the dust has settled on the Colombia match, how would you describe the national mood?
Dean Ashton: It’s incredible. It’s been 22 years since Euro ’96 when we last had some real joy out of a tournament, and that’s built up over the years. The weather’s nice every day, England are doing well – what more can you ask for?
Do you stand by that game being the most emotional you have felt in a football setting?
DA: Yeah, and I think everyone else is the same. It’s that built-up tension of having disappointments over the years, and I think if you’re a certain age it stirs up memories of the success in 1990. It evokes memories of football growing up and how you got into it and got to love it. It’s great now to see so many young kids look as if they’re going to get the same bug.
It was only a victory in the round of 16, but are there some new national heroes after the win over Colombia?
DA: Of course. Harry Kane is the main man, that’s for sure. Obviously, Jordan Pickford has had a lot of praise. But they all have; they’ve all been praised because of the attitude, the way they came back after the disappointment of the last-minute goal. The way Gareth Southgate has conducted himself throughout his England managerial career has really won everyone over.
As a player, all I wanted was to play in a World Cup. You can have those moments that define your career and people always remember. The other night and the match against Sweden are the types of games that people will remember forever, which is special.
Seeing the atmosphere around the national camp now, does it frustrate you even more about how cliquey it was during your days in the international fold?
DA: Definitely. I believe the talent back then was better than it is now. Even before my time the competition for places you had the likes of Andy Cole and Robbie Fowler who couldn’t even get in squads, let alone the team. It is disappointing. That’s why the way Southgate has conducted himself has received so much praise; the way he’s made the squad so relevant to everybody. That’s always been the hardest thing for England managers.
If you could add an extra member to the England squad now, who would it be?
DA: It would probably be Adam Lallana. We’re just missing that attacking midfield player that’s got some creativity. Lallana’s certainly got that, and the energy he plays with suits England.
Which England players would be considered for the best XI at the World Cup so far?
DA: Kieran Trippier and Kane would be straight in there. Harry Maguire and John Stones would both have a shout. But I’d like to get away from it being about the stars, it’s about the whole team. You can see the character; we’ve missed a team that’s really together and can get through really difficult moments.
A lot has been said about England getting the favourable side of the bracket, but do you think some Swedish fans would have preferred getting England over Colombia in the quarter-finals?
DA: Probably, because Sweden have got a really good record against us in recent times. They might have only lost once in the last seven meetings in major tournaments. So they would’ve probably preferred to get England, but we’re a different England to the one that we’ve been for a long, long time.
Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist has just had a newborn but he’s staying in Russia. Would you have been able to do that?
DA: Me and my wife were having this conversation the other night because Fabian Delph went home (for the same reason). As I turned to say, ‘How on earth can he miss the World Cup?’ she looked at me and went, ‘You’ve never given birth, you don’t know what it’s like to have to go through that.’ Each to their own, but I’d find it unbelievably difficult to leave the World Cup when you’re getting down to the knockout stages. If Delph was a starter it might have been different.
You previously voiced your appreciation for Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier’s abilities to protect the defence. Does their performance together against Colombia – it seemed to knock the team off balance – make you re-evaluate your stance?
DA: The other night Dier came on and Henderson went to the left, so it wasn’t as if he came on and they were two holding midfield players. I’d like to see them against top-level opposition with lots of firepower going forward, and Colombia didn’t necessarily have that, and Sweden certainly haven’t got that. At the moment there’s no real need to have that extra midfielder playing for England, so I wouldn’t expect to see Dier in the quarter-finals.
Would you make any changes to the starting XI for the Sweden match?
DA: Seeing how Sweden played against Switzerland, I feel as if we need as much pace in the team as possible. They are very narrow and compact, and there’s plenty of space out wide. Danny Rose is a must for me – not that Ashley Young hasn’t been good, because he has – as I feel we need that extra pace and real width to get down the sides of Sweden. Maybe play Marcus Rashford on the left instead of Dele Alli, and I’d probably push Raheem Sterling slightly further to the right-hand side and let Jesse Lingard be the player that’s just in behind.
When it’s so obvious how Sweden will play, why is it so hard to break them down?
DA: They all know their roles and stick to them religiously. Even if you do get down the sides and get a cross in, they’re well organised and in such good lines that it’s very difficult to make your runs through them and pull players out of position. It’s all credit to their discipline and the amount of work they’ve put into it. Sometimes tactics aren’t going to work, and it’s just going to come down to raw pace and trickery, and I think Rashford gives you that.
Beyond the defence, are there any Swedish players that scare you?
DA: No. There isn’t at all. Forsberg’s been their best player, but if he plays down the left I can’t see him getting any joy out of Trippier and Kyle Walker. If you beat one, you’re probably not going to beat the second one. England just can’t get overly comfortable and complacent.
This Sweden team is a triumph of teamwork, and one of the reasons for that is probably that Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t around.
DA: Yeah, and I think they have the benefits of that. They’re all working together and don’t have Ibrahimovic who they have to try and get the ball to as much as possible. On the flip side, a bit of quality going forward is the one thing they’re missing and might not get them past England or into the final.
Can this game be anything other than a long slog?
DA: The only way it wouldn’t is if England get an early goal. That would then force Sweden to come out and open the game up. If not, the longer it goes at 0-0 it will get tighter and tighter and Sweden will grow in confidence. That first goal is so vital.
Do you have a score prediction?
DA: I’m going to go 1-0 to England. It’s going to be really difficult but I can see us being the more dominant and braver.
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)