If any player in the current England squad has even the slightest bone to pick with Gareth Southgate, it might be Eric Dier.
The Tottenham Hotspur defender has won his place back now, coming in from the cold just in time for a World Cup in scorching temperatures, but he was overlooked for the last major international tournament. Before his return to the set-up in September, Dier’s most recent call-up had come 18 months earlier, not long before the run to the Euro 2020 final that he watched from the sofa.
Not that Dier is bitter, though. Far from it, in fact. “People ask me if I was upset that I didn’t go to the Euros and I say well it was obviously the right decision because they got to the final,” he jokes. And if Southgate’s stock has fallen somewhat in the time since, one of this World Cup squad’s most experienced internationals finds that criticism unfathomable. “Firstly, I think it’s crazy talk,” he says.
“What he’s done the last two tournaments, people lose… their perception changes so quickly. You’ve got to remember what England were doing before.” As one of seven veterans of England’s miserable Euro 2016, Dier has first-hand experience of how far things have come. “He has taken England to the semi-final of a World Cup and the final of a Euros and at that point we are talking about small margins that change the outcome of those results.
“It is just the world we live in. The criticism is crazy after a small run of results considering how England have performed at the last two tournaments and he was at the forefront of that. That conversation is crazy. So you have got to keep things in perspective. It’s difficult nowadays because everything is now, now, now but you’ve got to remember 2016 and where we are now.”
Thanks to that experience of England’s downs and ups over the past seven years, Dier has quickly gone from exile to a potential starter in Monday’s Group B opener. If Southgate elects to stick with the three-at-the-back system seen in recent Nations League outings, a spot opens up for the 28-year-old alongside Harry Maguire and John Stones in the centre of defence.
Southgate’s critics would see such a set-up against Iran as further evidence of his supposed conservatism, but Dier does not recognise that criticism and sees it as irrelevant if producing results.
“I think football can be won in so many different ways. Teams win tournaments and clubs win tournaments and they have a back four, a back five or a back three,” he insists. “There’s all sorts of ways. You can win in many different ways, with many different styles – the only thing is to win. There’s no right or wrong.
“No-one remembers the way France played at the last World Cup or Portugal played at the Euros [in 2016] or Italy played at the Euros [in 2021]. They only talk about who won it.”
There is more to this most political of World Cups than what is happening at England’s base camp in Al Wakra and Dier – who once infamously tweeted his opposition to Brexit – is is happy to engage with matters off-the-pitch.
“I try to read the news, I try to stay informed,” he says. “It’s something that annoys me a lot, if someone talks about a subject publicly, when they have influence on others, and they are not educated on the subject. It’s something I really don’t like. If I’m going to talk about something, I’d better be well-educated on it.
“A lot of things have already happened — a lot of things are very disappointing. Those will always be in my mind,” he said, clarifying that he was addressing the “terrible situation” of the migrant workers who built Qatar’s World Cup stadiums. “Of course it’s taking away [from the excitement], because we’re sitting here talking about it instead of talking about football, so of course it’s talking a lot of that away for us. But we can’t hide from it, it’s here. It would be wrong to ignore it.”
Dier’s grandfather, Ted Croker, was secretary of the Football Association between 1973 and 1989, leading English football’s governing body over decades defined by the challenge of hooliganism and tragic stadium disasters.
The Tottenham defender has allowed the world to peek at a hinterland beyond the pitch and an interest in wider issues facing the game. He blushes at the thought of moving upstairs into football administration himself – “I don’t know if I would be the right person” – but does not entirely rule it out, either.
“I am 28. I am still young. I have a long time to play. I am very interested. I have this conversation a lot with friends of mine within football about the future. We talk about it a lot and I am definitely interested in staying in football. It is my passion. There are lots of interesting fields in football to be involved in.
“I’m not really into politics too much. I don’t know if I have the right thing for it. For me, it is really important that football is in the right hands and that it is taken care of and cherished and looked after in the right way because it means so much to so many people. It is the biggest sport in the world and the one that everyone loves the most.
“I have no idea what the future holds. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow but it is extremely important we take care of football in the right way.”