EXCLUSIVE: Downing believes England can rule the world
Stewart Downing believes the strong team spirit Gareth Southgate has established in the England squad can help the Three Lions win the World Cup this winter.
Southgate's men are among the favourites to go all the way in Qatar after following up their semi-final appearance in Russia four years ago by reaching the Euro 2020 final last summer.
While that showpiece ultimately ended in heartbreak as they lost on penalties to Italy at Wembley, Downing is confident the Three Lions are on the right track.
The former England and Middlesbrough winger, 37, said: "They were very unlucky against Italy.
"It was down to penalties, which is just luck. You can’t really manage players for that, it’s just what happens on the occasion.
"I think there might have been better squads in terms of talent but you can’t get away from the fact these lads are a really good team.
"That’s what wins you tournaments. It’s not the individuals that win you it, it’s the team."
Pride of Lions
England’s evolution under Southgate, 51, has been clear and much has been made of the positive atmosphere he has created.
Downing, who worked under Southgate at Middlesbrough, believes the work that has gone in to improve the culture at St George's Park is why his side are now reaping the rewards on the pitch.
He added: "England have got good team spirit, good camaraderie, I think you can see that from the outside.
"That’s what Gareth’s about. He likes them to have fun — and for a long time England didn’t really have that.
"He’s brought everyone together and you can see people look like they’re excited to go and play."
Southgate had an unorthodox route to landing England’s top job.
His reputation took a hit when his first management role at Boro ended shortly after their relegation from the Premier League in 2009, before he spent time in charge of his country's Under-21s.
The former Aston Villa and Crystal Palace defender was only handed the role as manager of the senior national side following Sam Allardyce’s dismissal in 2016 — but he has proved a shrewd appointment by the FA in the years since.
Southgate’s success is no surprise to Downing, who could see the leadership and man-management qualities he possessed all those years ago on Teesside.
The former Boro academy graduate said: "He was brilliant for me.
"At the time at Middlesbrough, I think it was more difficult for him after going from player to manager. It was a quick turnaround. But for me, he was great.
"He gave me a lot of confidence. He had a lot of traits he still shows now in terms of his leadership.
"He’s not a shouter but he’s really good at how he leads and how he talks, how he speaks to people and getting the best out of them.
"He’s dealing with a lot of big players who expect to play. How you keep them happy is a skill in itself, I think.
"That’s his biggest quality — he’s honest. That’s what players want. He gives players respect.
"Players want to play for him. He has that aura about him where you want to do well for him. Overall, he’s just really good to play for."
England have just four games to play before their World Cup opener against Iran on November 21.
The Three Lions were able to secure a late draw in Germany on Tuesday night, recovering some respectability following a humbling 1-0 loss against Hungary last Saturday.
They welcome European champions Italy to Molineux at the weekend as Southgate further fine-tunes his World Cup plans.
And, of course, there will be a burning desire to settle the score with Roberto Mancini's men for that devastating penalty shootout defeat.
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