SEPTEMBER 2013, and Gareth Southgate is taking charge of his first game as manager of England Under-21s. Inevitably, as is the case with all levels of youth football, there are plenty of players involved whose careers will not quite go as planned. Saido Berahino, who scored the only goal as England beat Moldova 1-0, is currently the captain of the Burundi national team. Wilfried Zaha, who also started up front, opted to play his senior international football with Ivory Coast.

Glance down the rest of the team sheet though, and it is possible to discern the first seedlings of the growth that has taken Southgate’s senior England team to the semi-finals of their last two major tournaments. The full-back positions for Southgate’s first Under-21 selection were filled by Luke Shaw and John Stones. And with four minutes remaining, the now England boss turned to the substitutes’ bench to introduce a then 20-year-old Tottenham striker who had just recently completed a loan spell with Leicester City. His name? Harry Kane.

Southgate has made plenty of significant changes during his time as first Under-21 boss and then manager of the senior side, but a core of key players and beliefs have been there from the start. In some respects, England’s success at both the last World Cup and now Euro 2020 has come from nowhere. In others, though, it has been brewing for quite a while.

“The relationships have been forming over a long period of time,” said Southgate, when asked to reflect on the strength of the bonds within his squad ahead of tomorrow’s semi-final with Denmark. “You can put scenarios in – we went to the army camp (on a team-bonding retreat) and did stuff which definitely helped. But the reality is it is going through the games together, going through those real-life experiences together, and there is no shortcut to that.”

Of all Southgate’s successes since stepping up to the senior side, perhaps his biggest is the way in which he has cultivated a sense of belonging and shared purpose within his squad. Other England managers have talked of creating a ‘Club England’ identity, only for their aims to be thwarted by club-driven cliques and the temptation to pander to the biggest egos.

Southgate’s England set-up is different. A video did the rounds on social media after England’s last-16 win over Germany showing Jordan Henderson waiting to come on as a substitute just as Luke Shaw was crossing for Harry Kane to head home. Henderson went crazy, tearing off down the touchline before embracing an equally-jubilant Southgate. On Saturday, the roles were reversed. Henderson was the one heading home his first England goal; Conor Coady was leaping around on the sidelines thrilled for his team-mate.

Those moments count in a major tournament, driving the squad on and creating unity where there might otherwise be damaging division. On paper, few would dispute that France had the best squad at Euro 2020. At no stage, however, did Didier Deschamps’ squad look or feel like a unified team. The contrast to England, a side with fewer superstars, could hardly be more stark.

England’s players have bought in to Southgate’s team ethos, and the manager has worked hard to earn their trust. Over the last few years, Southgate has been extremely loyal to his key group. He constantly defended Jordan Pickford when his club form wavered. He picked Stones when he was struggling at Manchester City, and backed Harry Maguire when his struggles with Manchester United coincided with a red card for England against Denmark in the Nations League. He cleared a space for Henderson in the squad, even though the Wearsider was struggling for fitness, and stood by Raheem Sterling despite mounting calls for him to be dropped.

Players don’t forget that kind of support. “Within any team, there’s a core group that drive the team and I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of that,” said Southgate. When times were tough, he stood by that core group. Now, every time they go onto the pitch in an England shirt, they want to repay that faith.