Gareth Southgate has admitted he inherited “a mess” but insisted England remain on track under his stewardship after watching his team lean heavily on their goalkeeper to secure a point in Slovenia.
Joe Hart, who maintained the recent encouraging form displayed while on loan at Torino, conjured fine saves from Jasmin Kurtic, Roman Bezjak and Josip Ilicic as England preserved their seven-year unbeaten record in qualifying tournaments at the Stozice Stadium. The interim manager put on his captain, Wayne Rooney, for the final 17 minutes in an effort to exert some control and pointed to individual errors as a cause for concern, but attempted to offer some context to his side’s struggles.
“I can’t thank the players and support team enough for the backing I have had,” he said. “We wanted six points [from the two qualifiers] but we have taken over a mess and had to steady the ship. We are on track. Qualifiers away from home have always been tense, and were when I was playing too. Very tight. Very few you romped away with. But when you start as [badly as] we did in the second half, that creates anxiety.
“We’re very much a work in progress as far as I can see. What was key that, in an incredibly difficult 10 days not only in terms of taking over [from Sam Allardyce] but with the withdrawals with injury, to get four points … We’d have liked six, to have scored more goals and been more fluent with the ball, for sure, but we sit top of the group. The overall objective is to qualify so, long term, this could be an important point. Would I have been happy with a point if I’d been offered it before the game? No. But it’s ended up as a very important draw in the context of qualifying from the group.”
This was the first time England have failed to win a qualifier since September 2013 and a goalless draw with Ukraine ahead of the last World Cup, but the point gained ended up feeling like a minor triumph. “We owe our goalkeeper for that,” Southgate said of Hart’s fine display. “He was fantastic. I had a long chat with him in the week and asked him what he looks like when he’s at his best. He started his answer with ‘calm and composed’. He’s been that in the two matches we’ve had.
“His decision-making has been excellent, the use of the ball with his feet has been very good, and two or three of his saves were absolutely outstanding tonight. He showed the level he’s capable of. He was top class.”
That was summed up by an outstanding double save to tip Kurtic’s second-half header on to the woodwork and then claw the loose ball behind. “It was my best game for a while,” said Hart, whose six-year spell as No1 at Manchester City was curtailed by Pep Guardiola just ahead of the transfer deadline. “I was asked to do quite a bit, but that was down to a few errors by us. We are a young team and we will get better. It is a difficult result for us but we have to look at the bigger picture of qualification. My body is in pieces. I don’t know what happened for the save but I landed on the frame of the goal. I don’t think I’ll be able to get up in the morning.”
The game ended in acrimonious scenes with players clashing after Gary Cahill’s foul on Ilicic. Jesse Lingard appeared to take exception to Aljaz Struna’s push on Marcus Rashford and had to be restrained and ushered away by Rooney.
“I’m told Jesse reacted to someone raising their hands at Marcus,” Southgate said. “That’s something he’s got to cut out. There’s a danger you get a red card in this sort of game when there can be inconsistency in a lot of the decisions. There’s even more of a risk.”