(Reuters) - England interim manager Gareth Southgate is halfway through his audition for the full-time job but his hopes were hardly helped by an ugly performance in a 0-0 draw in Slovenia on Tuesday.
Southgate claims he inherited a “mess” after replacing Sam Allardyce, who lasted only 67 days in the job, and the display in Ljubljana was anything but pretty.
England rode their luck to stay top of Group F and on course for the 2018 Russia World Cup, thanks to some outstanding goalkeeping by Joe Hart, but there were few positives in a shapeless display that classier opposition than 67th-ranked Slovenia would have punished.
His decision to drop skipper and England’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney in favour of Eric Dier was hardly a qualified success with the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder almost gifting Slovenia an early goal.
Jordan Henderson, who wore the captain’s armband, struggled to exert much authority and he too was guilty of a careless pass that would have led to a Slovenia goal after the break but for another fine intervention by the over-worked Hart.
When Rooney did finally come off the bench in the 73rd minute he almost gave his side an undeserved lead with a shot that flashed past the post, but there was precious little to excite the visiting fans as England laboured to a draw.
Southgate’s first game since replacing disgraced Allardyce was a nondescript 2-0 win over Malta last weekend.
Now he must wait another month before a qualifier at home to Scotland and a friendly versus Spain, after which the English Football Association are expected to make a decision on his future.
“I can’t thank the players and support team enough for the backing I have had,” a subdued Southgate said.
“We wanted six points but we have taken over a mess and had to steady the ship. We are on track. I am going to have a couple of days to go and sleep.”
There will be much for Southgate to ponder when he wakes up.
Not least the amount of times his players were guilty of giving away possession -- an age-old English fault.
He will also have to wrestle with the inevitable Rooney debate and solve England’s failure to score goals or even create chances. They only had three shots on target on Tuesday.
Southgate tried to look on the bright side though even if the morning sports pages were likely to be critical.
“To have to deal with the amount of things we’ve had to deal with over a period of time, the objective is to get the points on the board for the country,” he said.
“We still sit top of the group and I know people will be disappointed we haven’t won but in the long term we are ahead in the group and we’ve got two difficult away games out of the way so everything is in our hands.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis