Gareth Southgate out, Graham Potter in? We are surely in the endgame now

John Nicholson
Graham Potter could replace Gareth Southgate as England manager
Graham Potter could replace Gareth Southgate as England manager

We are entering the final chapter in the Gareth Southgate England story; we are at the point where we are hoping for one last plot twist, but we can see the way the narrative is going to unfold.

It’s all been rather disappointing, hasn’t it? Gareth Southgate has moved England on exponentially with his polite, thoughtful, empathetic and supportive style allied with some great footballers. He took the lead weights out of the England shirt and got us deep into two tournaments. This is a huge leap forward.

But all things must pass and now there is something a little tatty and faded about the Southgate book of boys’ football. Where once he handled difficult press and politics with a deft hand, he’s found both feet in a big clunking zinc bucket over the Jordan Henderson affair.

He created his own problem by picking the former Liverpool man in the first place; a more realistic Gareth wouldn’t have done so. Trying to argue he was essential for England given all the other options available to play Ukraine was a bad misstep.

And as a result we had the unedifying spectacle of Southgate getting embroiled in the sort of unsustainable moral relativism and whataboutery that far more stupid people than Southgate indulge in, merely to justify picking a man who he didn’t even need to pick. It was all so avoidable and the way Henderson played only served to underline his superfluousness and Southgate’s mistake.

READ: Gareth has shown moral and football cowardice – for the first time, we’re a bit Southgate Out

Loyalty to players like Harry Maguire is increasingly looking eccentric rather than merely cautious. Maguire doesn’t deserve the beastly memes and other abuse, but he looks like a fish out of water in 2023 football and yet, there’s Lewis Dunk, who has all the physicality to go toe-to-toe with anyone but also plays in the most sophisticated club side in the Premier League.

It seems downright odd to play Maguire over him. Just as it seems odd to play Jude Bellingham in any position other than the one he is excelling at playing for Real Madrid. Surely Southgate can see that? Perhaps as time passes, you stop pushing forward and get comfortable with the familiar who have delivered for you in the past.

The end game for any England manager tends to play out in a similar way. PR mistakes are made, selections are questioned, tactics are found wanting and results become imperfect. If England lose to Scotland at Hampden Park – and that is far from unlikely given Scotland’s progress under Stevie Clarke – we will see the criticism cranked up to a new level with calls to oust him before Euro 2024 in Germany getting louder. When you know someone is on their last lap anyway, it’s tempting to wonder what the point of sticking with them is.

The decline is inevitable, as much a consequence of the passing of time as anything else. Gareth used to seem fresh and new, but today, his redefining of the England job complete, he doesn’t. It is time for someone else. But when and who?

READ: Who are the favourites to be the next England manager after Gareth Southgate?

Lee Carsley has been victorious with the U21s but does he have the sophisticated communication skills needed in a job which is at least 50% PR? Also, does his passing resemblance to Deputy Dawg (ask yer granny) fatally undermine his credibility?

Before running the Chelsea train off the tracks, Graham Potter was the obvious next England manager. A kind of Southgate 2.0, he shares the essential decency, has excellent man-management skills, a finely honed beard, plus his tactical nous would be a considerable step-up. But then Chelsea happened.

But Chelsea are Chelsea, a hallucinatory football cul de sac, a clown car in a freakshow, the doors falling off, tyres exploding and the engine bursting into flames. Whatever happens there, good or bad, should not be taken as an indicator of anyone’s talent either as a player or manager.

And Potter is available, surely sensing the goal opening up in front of him. Of course, he may not want to touch England with the proverbial bargepole feeling it may stain him forever in a McClaren-shaped way. Then again, what a squad of players he’d have to work with, a squad capable of reaching finals. It must be tempting and tempting sooner than later, you’d hope.

If Scotland hands out a humiliating beating to Southgate’s England on Tuesday, things may get sticky. If they don’t, no doubt the whole thing will drag on until the summer, by which time Potter may not be available, of course. That’d be a shame.

Southgate has made few misjudgments in his England managerial career and has got so much right. He’s been an absolute pleasure, at least until recently. Better to leave with business unfinished than to irrevocably stain your previously scrupulously clean linen. Let’s hope outstaying his welcome isn’t his final error.