“F*CK OFF SOUTHGATE, YOU NEGATIVE B*STARD,” yelped one livid fan as he headed for an early exit. All around Molineux, England supporters were quickly becoming very unsupportive indeed — scratching their heads and leaving their seats in favour of an early getaway. “YOU’RE GETTING SACKED IN THE MORNING,” sang those who stayed put. Either that or: “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING.” One fan leaned keenly over this writer and the writer next to him and said: “I hope you’re getting this down: Southgate is sh*t.”
England’s 4–0 defeat to Hungary in the Nations League in June was a chastening night for the national team. It was also a scarring experience for Gareth Southgate. The England manager does not bow to public opinion about who to start at left wing, but he is self-aware and does care about the public’s opinion of his status. He doesn’t want to outstay his welcome and he does accept that a certain level of ardent and fervid criticism comes with the territory of this job.
Criticism inevitably came that night. Plenty of criticism, very little of which would make it past the daytime TV bleep censor. England recorded their biggest home defeat in 94 years, and failed to win a single match in the whole six-game campaign. Relegation to Nations League’s second tier followed — bestowing upon England a level of ignominy not lost on Southgate.Embed from Getty Images
He was planning to quit as England manager after the World Cup. This was partly because of the public’s seemingly irreparable boredom for him or frustration at various aspects of his management style or, often, his personality. But also partly because six Nations League games without a win felt like a large enough pool of evidence to suggest England may have been going stale under him.
The fact of the matter is: England’s quarter-final showing in Qatar settled by defeat to France last weekend marks their worst tournament showing of the Southgate reign. However, they actually played better in Qatar than in either of their previous campaigns under him. At Russia 2018, England’s aim was to win one knockout round and anything else was a bonus. The goal at Euro was to reach the final. In this World Cup, just as Greg Dyke would have wanted, England set their sights on winning the tournament. Both before the game and while losing 1–0 at the half-way stage, England felt they genuinely would beat France. That was part of why defeat was so painful.
Southgate returned to his home in Harrogate last Sunday and was still planning to quit the job, but he was still yet to confirm that decision — not only to The FA but first in his own head.
Southgate, 52, has always been patriotic, and he invests incredible emotional energy into each tournament. His feeling after Qatar matched what he expected he would feel if they failed to win the World Cup: that he simply couldn’t put himself that trauma again only to get close but fall at the last once more. The job is stressful and all-consuming enough without the relentless torrent of abuse at its incumbent.
Exhausted, devastated and eliminated, Southgate and England returned from their quarter-final defeat to France to their training base in Al Wakrah on a 3am coach journey. During that journey, a number of players attempted to convince Southgate to stay on as England manager. Just hours earlier, at least five players had been asked about their boss’s future in the immediate aftermath of their elimination from the World Cup. Every player’s sentiment was the same: a desire to give Southgate the space to make his decision, but an acknowledgement that they wanted him to stay.Embed from Getty Images
Among England’s players in Qatar were Champions League and Premier League winner Jordan Henderson; those at Manchester City who must have lost count of their medals by now, and Kieran Trippier who last term won La Liga with Atlético de Madrid. These are winners who know what traits trophy-winning managers do and don’t have. They would not show unanimous support for Southgate to remain at the helm unless they genuinely meant it. Six years on, they still buy into his methods and his tenets.
The support from the players in the 26-man squad was a considerable pull for Southgate as mulled over his future in the immediate aftermath of the France defeat. So too were text messages from a number of friends and former colleagues in the following days. David Walsh reported for The Sunday Times that Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand sent a message of support.
Southgate’s head was already turning, but the ongoing cultural debate about whether an England manager should always be English has also highlighted to Southgate and to The FA — desperate to keep him — quite how few alternative options there are. In the 92-year history of the FIFA World Cup, no winning side has ever been coached by a foreign manager. And few of the world’s best foreign managers are either available to take the post immediately or would even want to. It has long been the case that head coaches at the top of their game tend to favour the day-to-day intensity of the club game over the peaks and troughs of international football.
The FA is in dreamland if it believes it could lure a Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp or even an unemployed Carlo Ancelotti to St George’s Park. Meanwhile, the top English managers — Graham Potter, Eddie Howe and perhaps even Wayne Rooney — are all busying themselves in the early periods of various exciting club projects. An England opening now would come at the wrong time for them all.
All of these factors have contributed to Southgate’s decision to stay on — not yet confirmed but which he is due to tell The FA imminently. Finally, England’s 2023 incorporates qualifying for Euro 2024, Southgate’s last tournament. The five-team group sees England face Italy and Ukraine, with only two of the three able to reach the tournament through automatic qualification.Embed from Getty Images
The next international break, in March, sees England travel to Italy to face the Azzuri before returning to Wembley to host Oleksandr Petrakov’s Ukraine. Southgate will know from his own experience how important it is for the complexion of the qualifying group to do well in the difficult early matches. England must not start poorly. Again, he knows staying on offers solidity.
Because this World Cup took place in winter, it is only a year and a half until Euro 2024, not two years. This is another key reason why Southgate has remained in post. Less time to be constantly thinking: England, England, England. Less time to wait before he can enjoy a much-needed sabbatical, following what will by then have been eight years in the job — the longest reign of an England manager since Sir Bobby Robson.
In the end, perhaps it comes down to people. Perhaps it comes down, above anything else, to the fact that The FA have been unequivocal in supporting their man. To the fact that his players unanimously wanted him to stay on. To the messages he received including those from direct rivals such as Hjulmand. To the fact that most England fans have reached a point now where they accept defeat to France because England did not die a self-induced death. England went for the jugular, only for the jugular to hit them twice on the counterattack and knock them out.
Even a man of Southgate’s selflessness and modesty will know the near-unique reality of his situation. Seldom has a job been so right for a person and that person be so right for the job.