With much of the modern world of football media being so brash, so block capital letters, so often crude and simplistic, it can be hard for a manager to be impressive by being thoughtful, nuanced and well-reasoned. All too often this is portrayed as weakness, or as being aloof, or as being too intellectual for ‘the lads’ to get behind.
Similarly, if you seem to be a decent, well-mannered person, that can be used as a criticism because you’re ‘too nice’ to be a winner, you see.
We saw this with Sven-Goran Eriksson, who achieved more in three tournaments than anyone has since. Not jumping up and down like a hyperactive gibbon, not screaming and shouting and behaving like a man who has drunk five pints of wine, eventually counted against him. The idiot press painted him as passionless and a man who didn’t ‘get’ England, when in reality, this was a man who was inclined to be “celebrating life, Kaiser, celebrating life”.
So it was when Gareth Southgate took over after the FA dragged Sam Allardyce away from his trough of baked beans garnished with a dead dog.
As a quiet, thoughtful and intelligent man, not prone to grandstanding and without a stellar managerial CV, Gareth was always going to be easy meat for anyone in the press who wanted to walk down the usual cliched routes. ‘Uninspiring’ , ‘not a leader’, ‘tactically unproven’ , ‘half-hearted’ , ‘distant’ , ‘desperate’, ‘quiet’ and ‘weak’ were just some of the words used to describe his appointment. Some doubted he even wanted the job at all (that was us – Ed)
But of course, what the guff-spouters and serial doubters didn’t realise was that times have changed and you don’t get respect from or inspire modern footballers by shouting in their face until their eyes bleed from the sheer volume of your sonic attack. Look at all the top managers, the vast majority of them are as much psychotherapists as they are tacticians. The days of the alpha male just telling players to ‘run around a bit’ are gone. The best managers are thinkers, not shouters and pointers.
“We’re asking them to open up quite a bit on their own feelings about things,” Southgate said, and in doing so gave ammunition to the old guard who think such talk is for the wet and the weak. But slowly and surely, Gareth has won over those cynics who were trapped in out-moded thinking and in the most satisfying of ways too: by simply being himself.
In recent weeks, the manner in which he handled the witch hunt against Raheem Sterling was exemplary; he not only defended the player, but vaunted his character, when it was precisely Sterling’s character which was being called into question. He was so erudite, so firm and authoritative in his words that it made all those shouting headlines seem so very dumb, crude and out of touch.
“Raheem is a very strong character. He is focused on his football. I’ve had a good, deep conversation with him just to see how we was with everything.
“He knows he’s got our support. He understands how some people have perceived the tattoo. In my view a tattoo is like any work of art – it is a very individual meaning, the intent is all with the individual and person.
“What has been clear from his own statement and his own experience is that he is not somebody that supports, or wants to promote, guns in the way that was perceived at first.”
Brilliant. A win for clever, thoughtful and correct.
At times Southgate does feel like a well-respected teacher who is just modern enough to understand the kids, but old and experienced enough to assert authority. The sort you want to like you, the sort you don’t want to let down. Listen to how he talks about the possibility of racial abuse in Russia.
“We’ve discussed the possible situation over racism, which was certainly an important connection between the team. It’s not a comfortable space for us to be at times but it helps to build a togetherness. You get a closer connection.”
This is a new way for an England manager to talk and behave. Feelings? Emotions? Togetherness? The best teachers were always the ones you wanted to impress and please, not the ones who you were scared of. And surely England have had a gut full of being scared. Scared of press, of managers, of the public.
And how about this for a lovely sentiment for football and for life?
“We’ve spoken at length this week about how we’re really proud to represent everybody but really the guy next to you is the most important one going into this tournament. You’ve got to be there for him, you’ve got to support him, you’ve got to be available when he needs to pass the ball to you and you’ve got to be covering his back if he slips or makes a mistake and that’s what we want to engender.”
I don’t think i’ve ever heard an England manager use the word engender! I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling pride in having an England manager who is smart, erudite, who doesn’t talk in cliches, has a gentle side but is firm-minded and who has clearly put a lot of thought into a management strategy based on understanding the psyche of the modern footballer.
He’s played the press almost flawlessly. Time and again they have tried to catch him out so they can blow something up into a big story, but time and again he’s spotted it a mile off and body swerved it. When they asked him if England could win the World Cup, knowing that answering yes or no is a big, albeit predictable, story for them to write, he responded by smartly stating where England were in the rankings, what our history was and rhetorically asked what did that tell us about our chances? He’s been careful to say that winning it would be tough, we’re not in the strongest position to do so, but that football can be a mercurial game full of twists and turns, so you never know. That is the only reasonable position to take and it is so reasonable that no-one has been able to gainsay it. He’s poured alkaline on the press acid.
He’s also cleverly painted the squad’s youth as an advantage and in doing so he’s not just trotting out meaningless platitudes about ‘world-class players’ or any of the usual nonsense. He’s praising, not just their skill, but their young and open minds.
“That’s allowing us to create an environment where they’re actually having a go at things we’re asking them to do,” he said. “Sometimes I think: ‘They’re never going to go for this.’ They’re at times painstakingly putting up with some of the things I throw their way so, that I think, would be more difficult with older players.”
What is so lovely is that this is all said and done without the merest whiff of overbearing ego or arrogance. It is an absolute pleasure to witness. The best leaders are enablers, not dictators. They put their charges in a position of wanting to embrace and take on the challenge ahead, not hide from it. They remove fear and install self-belief and faith.
“My job is to allow people to dream. Make the impossible seem possible…they are at an age and have hunger, enthusiasm and no little quality so they can certainly keep improving. We have got to improve to reach the latter stages of a tournament and that is going to take a lot of work over the next few weeks and a huge commitment. But I am seeing evidence that they’re embracing that challenge.”
Gareth Southgate has certainly allowed us to dream a dream where England look look a modern side, play well and give us all some great entertainment. And that is already a really huge achievement for a man who so many totally underestimated.