We Must Cherish Southgate While We Have Him

Getty Images/Carl Recine

It is finally fashionable to say that Gareth Southgate is the model manager, and the model man. If this summer belongs to anyone, it belongs to him. Despite the unique demands of his job — to be a spokesperson, football coach, and everything in between — his faults are hopelessly difficult to spot. He’s making it all look remarkably easy.

Besides his exceptional record as manager in a footballing sense — fourth-, third-, ninth- and now second-placed finishes with England — Southgate is now rightly seen as one of the most considered voices in the game. His social conscience is impeccable — as is his team’s — and his uncanny ability to find the right words at the most testing moments speaks volumes about his morals and his priorities.

At moments, the man’s empathy and humanity can hold him back. He has mentioned numerous times that the guilt he feels for his teammates of missing the Euro 96 penalty has killed him for 25 years and will ultimately chase him to his grave. And no matter how many times his former teammates assure him that they don’t hold him personally responsible, he can’t help but feel that he is. The Pizza Hut advert, the 4,000 angry letters he received from England fans, and the incessant reminders of that moment over the years can’t have helped.

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But history has a tendency to offer some the chance to rewrite their reputations. For all Southgate achieved in a stellar club career for Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, judgement day had always been the run-up, the poor contact, the dejection, and the oh-so-lonely walk back to the halfway line. Judgement day hadn’t been kind on Gareth Southgate; he hadn’t even been granted a full day. It was more like a few cruel seconds.

Yet Southgate’s trailblazing work with The FA — to improve the standard of youth football in the country and to make it more skills-based and less pointlessly competitive — helped him secure the England U21s job in 2013. He was then in the right place at the right time to earn the big one four years later, following Sam Allardyce’s 67-day reign and subsequent disgraced exit. Had he been treated to some luck and been offered the chance to rewrite his narrative by the footballing gods? No, he’d earned his luck. The FA trusted Southgate with ‘The Impossible Job’ because he had gained their trust already.

Into the lions’ den stepped Gareth. He said he hadn’t wanted it quite yet. Then he set his sights on clambering out alive once ‘his turn’ was over. More than alive, Southgate has given life to a muddled nation. The man and the manager are both thriving. So are his football team ­— they’ve made history by reaching the Euro 2020 final.

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After beating Ukraine in Rome to help England to successive semi-finals for the first time since 1968 (from which they then made a first final since ’66), Southgate offered the latest evidence of his unwavering selflessness. What was to be his first topic of discussion in the post-match interviews? Harry Kane’s brace? England’s biggest-ever win at the Euros? Their next match, the semi-final against Denmark? None of the above. Instead, he started by apologising to those of his England players who hadn’t played a minute so far at the finals. He attributed the team’s success up to that point as much to them, their work ethic and their positivity, as to the on-field achievements of those getting game-time.

It wasn’t about the history England were making. It was about the people that make England. It’s always been about people for Southgate. His work to open up the England team to the media at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and Euro 2020 has been a masterstroke. Why should the players fear journalists if they’re bantering with them over a game of darts? Why worry about the paparazzi when instead The FA could employ cameramen to record the best moments of England camp life and then upload them to England’s social media channels? Give the media what they want and their columns will be favourable. Give fans the content they want and they’ll buy the new home shirt, away shirt, and, heck, maybe even the official England air freshener. They’ll also buy tickets to games with this renewed interest. More fans means more atmosphere means more wins.

To Southgate, all of this was perfectly obvious. To more opulent managers in eras gone by, it clearly wasn’t.

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The mood around the England camp has improved for the players too, which they admit every single time they speak to the media. Southgate’s ability to act quickly and spontaneously is one of his greatest strengths — and thank God, considering he’s the England manager. But so is his ability to find solutions to problems through giving enough of a shit to work through them.

He has revealed that some players don’t respond well to one-to-one meetings; others do. Some like to come into his office; others you’re better off ‘bumping into’ in the gym. He doesn’t feel the need to ram reels and reels of footage down his players’ throats. Those who want to prepare for the next fixture studiously can do. No over-complicating. The man asks his players how their partners are, and whether they’re missing them while they’re away. And he actually cares. Fabio, take notes.

One such example of Southgate’s emotional intelligence paying off is with Raheem Sterling. Under Roy Hodgson, England’s last manager if you ignore Sam Allardyce’s farcical one-game tenure, Sterling scored just twice in 26 caps. But Southgate has worked with the player on why his England numbers had long been well down compared to his astronomical efforts for his club. Southgate’s Sterling has struck 15 in 41 matches. The winger’s three goals and one assist at Euro 2020 have no doubt played a part in why his club Manchester City head in to the new Premier League season as firm favourites to retain the title.

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A pundit suggested a couple of weeks ago that ex-England stars should be invited to give Churchillian dressing-room speeches to gee up the Three Lions ahead of matches at these championships. It was like they hadn’t understood England’s clear culture shift. Southgate has managed to inspire his young England team to break down barriers precisely because they don’t adhere to such archaic patriotic nonsense. Good old gung-ho English jingoism has tried and failed to bring England success at major tournaments for half a century or more. Southgate felt it was long overdue that we tried something else. Something like, say, floating quietly under the radar with a talented yet modest group of young players.

Approval ratings for Southgate among England fans were at an all-time low ahead of Euro 2020. But something more sinister than simply who he’s picking at right-back could be at play there. It is possible that some have wanted rid of Southgate for personal reasons. Perhaps it is threatening to the archetypal alpha-male that the eloquent and well-mannered Southgate is having such success in the nation’s second-most cutthroat job. He embodies everything the modern British man should be.

Either that or they still view him as the slightly goofy-looking figure that he cut in his early playing days. “What could this guy possibly amount to?” Well, now we all know. Keep on underestimating Southgate — it’s served him well for the first half of his life.

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Regular contact with his senior players has seen him dub them his ‘tribal elders’. Together with Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, Harry Maguire, and Sterling, he has sought to give England a club feel. His vision for how his team should function has been deeply shaped by reading the book Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. His players and his staff are not his children or, worse still, his students. They are his co-workers; he sees himself merely as the first among equals. A lot of philosophising has gone into Southgate’s England success. The man can’t sit down to a film with his family without somehow linking the overarching message to how he can do better with England.

Eventually, whether in 2022 or 2024 or even later, someone will replace Gareth Southgate as England manager. And there will be new triumphs and new lulls before the next manager comes in. That will be the disorderly order of things. But England will struggle to ever find a manager as competent, as grown-up, as spot-on as the incumbent.

Gareth Southgate is evidence that, just sometimes, nice guys do win. Especially on these shores, it’s about time one did.

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