When Gareth Southgate took the England job from this man, he had many, many doubters who had made value judgments without having the first clue what he was really like.
His first managerial job was at Middlesbrough – who he’d played for with distinction – and he achieved two steady mid-table Premier League finishes at a time of constricting finances. That should not be overlooked. But it counted for nothing to critics who only seemed to notice the club’s relegation the following year. But Southgate is not the first good manager to get relegated and he won’t be the last. Indeed, if it is true that you learn more from adversity, it would have been typical of Gareth to learn a great deal.
When he took over the England U-21 side in 2013, most just ignored what he was doing, but once again there were many who disparaged him, saying he was a typical FA appointment: a yes man who wouldn’t make waves, a bland, inoffensive type who was reliable and wouldn’t become embroiled in any scandal, but not someone who would ever amount to much.
Those critics didn’t know Southgate at all.
Even when, three years later, he quit that job for the senior team with an 81% win ratio, having lost just three games in 33 over three years, that still this wasn’t good enough for the non-believers. The facts didn’t impress them.
Because he was an unusual English coach who didn’t fit any of the pre-existing moulds, that’s why.
Some of us knew how thoughtful and intelligent Gareth was, knew that he was picked to replace Steve McClaren by Boro chairman Steve Gibson over and above any other candidate, simply because he was so impressive when talking about an over-arching philosophy. And Gibson isn’t easily impressed.
While so many seemed to dismiss – or be ignorant of – his three years as U21 coach, Gareth was not merely holding down the job, he was expanding his mind, his understanding, his education, and in doing so developing methods and systems of coaching that could be implemented throughout England’s national sides.
Maybe that was all too highbrow and clever for those critics who think a manager’s job is largely to shout and point and know “when a player needs a cuddle, or a kick up the backside” as the football cliche vernacular still has it, even now.
The crucial lesson to learn from the old school is that anyone not shouting and pointing is a bit wet and not quite alpha male enough. Why else would he have been so roundly dismissed? It doesn’t make sense. He had outstanding results.
This is a man who captained each club he played for. He was the youngest Palace captain to lead the club to promotion, at just 23. He led Boro to the League Cup win – their first trophy (unless you count the Anglo Scottish Cup – and by the way, I bloody do) and, more incredibly still, to the UEFA Cup final.
In the second leg of the semi-final against Steaua Bucharest, he was injured in the first half and had to come off after less than 20 minutes. By half-time Boro needed to score three goals to win. And they did it. But it’s been said that it wasn’t manager Steve McClaren that delivered the half-time team-talk that fired the players to one of the greatest wins in the club’s history, it was Gareth.
So if you or anyone else thought he lacked balls, grit, determination or blood and snot passion, you were wrong. Fires burn hot and bright inside him. Just look at his post-game and post-goal celebrations. The fact he isn’t promiscuous with those passions and usually favours more articulate, emotionally literate behaviour, only makes the joy more intense when he does unleash.
And now we are seeing the fruits of all of this. As Daniel said in his 16 Conclusions, this is an England side that looks properly coached and is deploying all of that coaching within the games. The team has system, shape and identity. Even Harry Kane’s penalties look properly drilled to make them unstoppable. This is all Gareth’s doing. He’s got into his players’ heads and minds in a way no other manager has since maybe Terry Venables.
Whatever happens in the rest of this tournament, we will be seeing a lot more of Southgate as England manager and we should all be pleased about that. He has brought hope and light, where once there was only despair and darkness. He is both literally and emblematically representative of a new outlook.
But to return to why he was so widely disregarded and his appointment was so uninspiring to so many, it is my view that at the core of the long-running easy dismissal of Southgate was nothing less than inverted snobbery and an old-fashioned view of what a Football Man should be. It was hooked into the anti-intellectualism that runs through the British game like dysentry.
Gareth is articulate, thoughtful and not prone to bouts of macho bluster. He’s called…well… Gareth. He’s a Gareth: mild-mannered and lower middle-class. And just because he wasn’t a certain type of man, he was put down and disparaged almost by instinct. He wasn’t shouty. You couldn’t imagine him being abusive to anyone. He talks with intellect and learning. And in the minds of all too many in British football, that equals being weak. If you can’t give someone the hairdryer, the boys won’t respect you. That’s how some still think, even now. That’s certainly the default tabloid view. It’s so old fashioned. So dumb. But it sells to the old-fashioned and the dumb, I guess. For so many years being clever was the dumbest thing for an England manager to be. But not now.
Southgate knew that times had changed and that footballers need leading in a new way. They need respecting and motivating in a way which means something to millionaire 20-somethings of the 21st century. Intelligence, empathy and decency are not barriers to success, they are the keys to it.
His own failures at tournaments have educated him, not just tactically, but in the mentality you need to have. And now we can see how his methods are paying dividends. The fact he was so underrated and so misunderstood up until this point is a lesson in narrow-mindedness.
I just hope that the radical extent of the job he has already done is not undervalued or underestimated in the future. Post-Iceland, he had a massive rebuilding job to do, not just in playing and backroom staff but with the self-belief, philosophy and psychology of the players and fans.
With all faith gone and every error pounced upon to show how terrible England are by a press who knew there were lots of clicks in kicking England, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking the job was a poisoned chalice. And maybe if you put that to Gareth he’d give you one of his big, toothy, quick but disarming smiles, because he knew better than most what a huge job it was and still is. He knows where the traps are and exactly what can go wrong. There is still much to do. This is really just the start of the new era.
Just when everything England seemed black and white, along came Gareth Southgate painting a new picture using every colour on the shade card. These are a glorious few days full of positivity and whatever the future holds, no-one should let go of that feeling and spirit. It may even help the sales of very tight waistcoats.