Gareth Southgate feels privileged to be anywhere near a century of matches at the England helm as he prepares for a repeat of the fixture where it all began for him seven years ago.
Having rebuffed the Football Association’s initial approach after Euro 2016, the then Under-21s boss was parachuted into the hotseat after Sam Allardyce’s swift, ignominious exit.
Southgate’s first game in temporary charge was a World Cup qualifier against Malta, with Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli securing a 2-0 win in October 2016.
Friday sees the Mediterranean minnows return to Wembley for the first time since then – a night when the England boss will take charge of his 90th senior international.
“I know the numbers and I am aware that Bobby Robson was 95 games,” Southgate said.
“If you had said to me the first time we played Malta that would be the case, I don’t know how I would have thought about that.
“It has been a privilege to take as many games as we have and we have had some wonderful experiences and incredible nights along that journey.
“I am very happy to be in with the sort of names that have managed that many games.”
Southgate is on track to become the first England manager to oversee a century of matches since Sir Alf Ramsey – a feat that could be achieved in the Euro 2024 knockout phase.
But silverware in Germany rather than individual milestones is the only focus ahead of potentially his final tournament in charge.
England sealed progress to next year’s Euros with two games to spare, yet a packed Wembley crowd will still be in attendance on Friday for the home game of an unbeaten year.
Southgate wants to bring the curtain down in style against Malta after a disruptive build-up in which five of his players withdrew through injury, two were absent for personal reasons and three uncapped players were called up.
“We want to play well,” Southgate said. “We’ve got close to 90,000 people coming – this is the last time we play at home in this calendar year.
“Our performances across the calendar year have been very good and we want to finish the year well.
“There are some individual things we would like to see and like to learn a little bit more about.
“But clearly that is tempered by the sort of test that is going to be.
“There are specifics for this game where you are going to have to break down a packed defence and we have to make sure we have the players in the starting team that can unlock those doors as well.
“So, you are always trying to achieve a number of different objectives.
“It has been a complicated week in that the five days leading into the camp, we lost a lot of players.
“Each day, somebody else seemed to go so there has been a lot of change within the squad and it has not been easy to get all of the players on the pitch every day.
“Tuesday, we hardly did anything training-wise so it has been a much shorter week and we are pleased with where the team is for the game and we are looking forward to seeing them play.”
England complete this year’s schedule away to North Macedonia on Monday, before attention turns to the Euro 2024 draw in Hamburg on December 2.
Preparations are well under way and Southgate says winning is “implicit in everything” he does as he looks to turn seven years of learnings into silverware.
“I guess the biggest thing I have experienced is that you take charge of one of the most high-pressured jobs in world football and had to manage some of the biggest matches in world football,” he said.
“There is only a World Cup final that we haven’t done.
“You understand what that means in the longer term, in terms of what you have learned, what you have taken from those experiences.
“And the fact we have dealt with those challenges and that pressure, which can sometimes really inhibit people and, frankly, a lot of people could not cope with that pressure, so I feel pleased we have shown that we can do that.
“I am sure there will have been a lot of doubts some years ago whether I was capable of doing that and, of course, there will be other doubts people will have and that will always be the same.
“You will always have questions asked of you but as a person, and as a coach, you will always learn through every experience you have and every day will throw a different challenge and you are learning all the time.”