Gareth Southgate has had nights of deep disappointment as England manager, but none have been riddled with the level of corrosive personal abuse and scrutiny that followed Hungary’s humiliation at Molineux.
Losing to Croatia in the round of 16 at Russia 2018 and losing to Italy on penalties in the final of Euro 2020 last July came under the banner of a glorious failure as England found themselves in territory they had not occupied for so long.
Southgate’s own status as – according to the song – ‘The One’ went largely untouched among England fans, despite his conservative approach being revisited in those two games amid a horrible start to their Nations League campaign.
The situation was different with the 0:4 embarrassment against a professional but hardly world-class Hungarian team. Very different.
Southgate was the prime target for a mutinous Molineux as the pain piled up with loud chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ as the result of the worst performance in his six years and 74 games as England manager.
Of course Southgate knows what he’s doing. Just a year ago he led England to their first major final since winning the 1966 World Cup. They made it through to Qatar – although they should have.
Is Southgate the winner England have wanted for 56 years? This remains an unanswered question.
We’ll find out more in Qatar and there’s no doubt that this World Cup will shape his future, even though he’s on a two-year contract after that.
Memories for football managers are notoriously short, especially with England, and Southgate is going nowhere. He should also only be on the road for six months with the World Cup in Qatar. It’s not even a debate for someone who has achieved what he has achieved in both of his major tournaments.
However, that does not stop the growing and apparent concerns surrounding an England side now facing relegation in the Nations League and going six hours without a goal in open play.
Southgate was surrounded by dissatisfied grumbling and hooting backstage during those final games as England were uninspired, disgruntled and, well, just plain bored.
Managers and players needed a convincing win to round off the season and stem the growing ailments, but instead they got only an English horror show as they were clinically taken apart by a Hungarian side, ranked at No. 40 in the world.
Again, there needs to be context.
Many English players have looked exhausted at the end of a busy season. Southgate himself has cut a more world-weary figure than usual as that international break was overcome by defeat in Budapest, a late draw via Harry Kane’s penalty in Munich, the goalless draw with Italy and the carnage against Hungary.
There’s also no escaping the brutal reality that England doesn’t resemble any side who have moved forward in the last 12 months and now have just two more Nations League games in September against Italy and Germany to look like one.
Old mistakes remain, like over-reliance on Kane, while John Stones’ performance, although his dismissal was ridiculous, will do nothing to lower heart rates at the prospect of his partnership with Manchester United captain Harry Maguire. Class forward in Qatar.
It wasn’t a bad night for Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford either, who had to be substituted. His status as England’s number one was further bolstered when Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale was behind such a pathetic performance.
Southgate and England need this summer break to refresh their minds and legs and analyze what has happened not just in the last fortnight but in a lackluster 12 months.
He will be hoping players who looked tired are refreshed and get through the first three months of the Premier League season unscathed as a lot depends on it for Southgate and England.
Southgate will need to agree on his formation and midfield staff, with Jude Bellingham set to enter further into the equation. He must decide whether to replace his trusted midfield duo of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, who were completely out of shape against Hungary despite ending an injury-plagued season.
Can a forward shake hands with Kane as an understudy? Given the England captain’s paramount influence in all things, particularly scoring, Southgate hopes he never has to put it into practice.
Tuesday was a night to forget, but forgetting will be impossible. It will throw a cloud over Southgate by the time England gets back together in September. It was so bad, so damaging.
Fatigue is only part of the explanation for such a result and England haven’t shot in a while. You looked at the drift.
England isn’t dissolving, but things can change quickly. Just last September, they inflicted the exact same score on Hungary in a toxic environment in Budapest.
Southgate’s reservoir of goodwill among England fans has run a little dry of late but there’s still time to replenish it to at least start November’s World Cup in Qatar in better shape, as that season ended in Molineux’s wrath.
It seems both England coaches and players need to recharge their batteries – but they need to do it quickly as the clock ticks towards Qatar.