Down in the depths of Al Bayt Stadium, players hurried from their changing rooms to the team coaches that would take them back through the desert to Doha. Gareth Southgate stood behind a barrier, talking.
Barriers have become useful for him. He has started to erect them in his mind and even in his hotel room at the England base, where he has a rule that he does not switch on his television set.
His team had just been outplayed by the USA in their second group game of this World Cup but even if the performance was as flat and as uninspired as the 6-2 win over Iran was brilliant and entertaining, the 0-0 draw keeps England top of their group and needing only a point against Wales on Tuesday night to qualify for the last 16.
Gareth Southgate has enjoyed great success since taking charge of England back in 2016
Southgate has already led England to a 2018 World Cup semi-final and Euro 2020 final
Perspective is a dirty word in the heat of these competitions but it is worth remembering that at this stage of the 2014 World Cup, England had already been eliminated.
Fortunes ebb and flow at tournaments but for those who have convinced themselves England would have won the 2018 World Cup and Euros in 2021 if Southgate had not been in charge, then stalemate against the USA was another sign of the apocalypse.
Southgate knew that the result would bring the noise. He knew that even though England had cut loose against Iran, the goalless draw against Gregg Berhalter’s side would immediately revive accusations he was an over-cautious manager who was stifling England’s great talents.
At Euro 2020, Jack Grealish was the saviour Southgate was accused of ignoring. At this tournament, Phil Foden has already been anointed in that role.
England limped to a lifeless 0-0 draw against USA in their second World Cup group game
The Three Lions manager (right) has trusted experienced members of his squad in Qatar
Southgate blocked that all out. He said he had told his players they should not be disappointed by the result. He had told them they had taken another step closer to their first goal of qualifying for the knockout stages.
Few teams have the kind of seamless group stage progressions that Southgate masterminded at the last World Cup and Euros and this was just a small bump in the road.
‘I am lucky,’ he said, when he was asked about the criticism that would be coming his way. ‘I am locked away in a hotel with no telly on. But I don’t need to see it because I know what it will be. It is a deliberate disengagement on my part.
‘Because if I listen to everything, I either go bonkers or you start to doubt yourself and you listen to too many things.
Team captain Harry Kane (middle) is expected to provide goals for his country out in Qatar
‘I am clear on how we need to be and on decisions we need to make. We won’t get every single decision right and so if there is criticism of certain calls, then so be it.
But if you had said to me, ‘Four points from the two games, goal difference where it is’, then I knew tonight would be a tough game. We would love to have won it and got the job done, but we haven’t, so we have to go again.
‘The criticism is another layer of learning and toughening up. I have had enough experiences over the years to have stood me in good stead for this job. I have come here to enjoy this tournament as much as I can and make sure that that is transmitted to the players because I think that gives us the best possible chance of doing well. I love the group of players we have got here.
Jude Bellingham has emerged as an England starter at this year’s World Cup in Qatar
‘I think we can continue to improve with each game in different areas. Today we were better defensively than we were the other night against Iran but we did not have quite the same attacking zip. If we can put all those things together, then we have got a really strong team.’
Beyond the anti-Southgate hysteria, it would be as foolish to damn England as no-hopers after the USA game as it would have been to acclaim them as world-beaters after thrashing Iran.
If they win the group, they are likely to face either Senegal or Ecuador in the second round. Both are good teams and England would have to play much better than they did against the States to win. If they slip up against Wales and finish second, they are likely to face Holland, which would be a sterner test.
But that is the bargain. Southgate will be eviscerated if England do not reach the quarter-finals because he has set the bar higher than it has been for England for more than half a century and because England have a fine group of players. If they reach the last eight, the world champions France may be waiting.
Southgate might win over a few of his detractors if England win that but he won’t be holding his breath. And, given England’s record in tournament knockout matches against major nations, neither will his detractors.
For now, he is focused on Wales. He knows they will come flying at England with nothing to lose and with the furious and desperate intent of wounded animals and he is confident England will pass the test.
England will finish top of their World Cup group if they beat Wales in Qatar on Tuesday
Southgate (left) knows he will come under huge pressure if England don’t win their group
‘You have to go three games. You have got to be ready to do that. We are going to go to knockout games eventually anyway so you have to be able to handle those moments. When you have had as much flak as me you are not really bothered about having a bit more.’
Predictably, Southgate was deluged with criticism for bringing Jordan Henderson on to replace Jude Bellingham 20 minutes from the end against the USA but Bellingham had looked tired after his brilliant performance against Iran and, in the context of a match where England were still being outplayed, Henderson’s introduction stopped the bleeding. It was a good substitution but, because it was not Foden, it was mocked.
‘We know all about the passion required against Wales,’ said Southgate, ‘but we have to play well. We are going to play an opponent that is wounded and, like everybody else, desperate to beat the English.
But his squad will be determined to bounce back from Friday’s flat stalemate with USA
‘We know what that will be. We have got to play an intelligent game and play well. Match the spirit.
‘I would be very disappointed if someone says to me that their players will want it more than ours. I would be asking questions about what we stand for and what we have been for five years. We need a point to qualify. If we get three points we top the group.
‘If we are going to get to the stage of the tournament we want to, we have got to show lots of different sides to our character, personality and ability.
‘This is a tournament like no other for noise and we have got to make sure that we stay really calm. I know what the noise will be after the draw with the USA, but we crack on.’