Let’s embrace The Gareth Way before Southgate-mania wanes

Date published: Sunday 18th July 2021 7:34 - John Nicholson

Johnny Nic ponders what’s so great about Gareth while recognising that one day, the tide will turn against Southgate. It always does…

 

Who’s this then?
Gareth Southgate (always Gareth, never Gary) is a six-foot-tall former centre-half for Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough. He played 638 club games and scored 35 goals, as well as gaining 57 caps for England. His playing career lasted from 1990 to 2006.

At Palace he was a right-back and a midfielder before settling into the centre-half role and became club captain in 1993, leading the side to win the second tier, stupidly called the First Division at the time. When they got relegated in 1995, after 191 games and five years, he moved to Aston Villa for £2.5 million, for a further six years, winning the League Cup in his first season there.

His move to Middlesbrough in 2001 cost the club £6.5 million for the 31-year-old. He replaced Paul Ince as Boro captain and led the club to its first major silverware (if we are not to count the Anglo-Scottish Cup and the Kirin Cup as such) by winning the League Cup in 2004 and, after a remarkable campaign, being runners-up in the 2005-06 UEFA Cup, a position they achieved by losing one leg of each two-leg knockout game. In the semi-final beating of Steaua Bucharest, coming back from four goals down on aggregate, he was taken off injured after less than 20 minutes however, he is widely credited for giving the half-time speech to the side that inspired a massive comeback and amazing 4-3 aggregate victory, as boss Steve McClaren stood by and looked on in that way he has.

When he took over from McClaren as manager of Middlesbrough, at a time of major financial restriction, he led them to 12th and 13th-place finishes before being relegated in his third season. When the club was one point off the top of the Championship, and lying fourth in the table, he was sacked in October 2009. And that was the last we thought we’d probably hear from him. That he’d end up as a successful England manager was not on anyone’s radar at all.

He ducked out of football for fully four years, before returning as boss of England Under-21s replacing Stuart Pearce. He won the Toulon Tournament in 2016 with them and his record shows in 37 games, he only lost five.

When Sam Allaradyce got involved in what we must call Wine-gate, he stepped in on a temporary basis to run the England side, passed the audition and has been there ever since 2016, leading the team to a World Cup semi-final and a European Championships final.

Everything eventually came up Gareth. His win ratio is currently 63 per cent only behind Fabio Capello who tops that list with 66 per cent, so make of it what you will, and Allardyce who, the records show, has 100 per cent win ratio after winning his only game in charge. A stat I’m sure he’s keen to let everyone know about.

He made his England debut under Terry Venables (47 per cent win ratio), missed THAT penalty, took part in a famous pizza advert and was recognised as an all-round, self-deprecating good guy. Even so, that he bestrides the national game as a veritable, if modest, colossus is somewhat surprising and one of recent years’ most cheering developments.

 


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Why the love?
First, he was a very good defender and had a decent turn of pace but above all, excellent reading of the game, fearless in the tackle and a good organiser. The fact he was the club captain for the majority of his career suggests that he has always had leadership qualities. However, being a leader in the early 90s is a different task to being one in 2021. So he must’ve grown and evolved his skills over the years to fit in with the changing culture of the game, the expansion of his learning and understanding is one of the best things about his tenure to date.

He’s not trying to pretend he’s a football sage, just someone who’s done some research, thought deeply about the game and understands the importance of psychology in making good players play well. Many love this about him. That he treats the job like an intelligent person and not some shouty blowhard, feels like a win for common sense and brains. Obviously, this is also what some really dislike and those people refuse to get with the Gareth programme of being inclusive and pleasant. He’s not what a certain type thinks should be an England manager, which is basically a flatulent bulldog in a Flag of St George waistcoat.

But at this moment, Gareth is riding high amongst the majority of England fans for reviving the national team’s fortunes. Acres and acres has been written about how he’s done this, so I won’t go over it all again here but instead will point out that there is a good argument to say an element of over-the-top love of Gareth, right now, that is teetering on fetishisation of him. This happens a lot in modern media and I think I’m as guilty of it as anyone of indulging in it

A person becomes the repository of everyone’s faith and hope, the future: our saviour. We all sing songs about him, laud his every move, his dress sense, even. The Gareth Way becomes A Thing and The Only Way. This in turn ensures he will eventually let everyone down because he is, after all, just a normal fella, and as such, liable to get stuff wrong. It’s not hard to see those murals defaced after a 2-0 home defeat to Hungary in October. When you’re put on a pedestal, there’s only one way to go. Now there are murals of him on walls, this seems almost inevitable and we need to remind ourselves that quiet revolutionary he may be, but he’s as liable to screw up as anyone is. The man himself will already know this well enough, of course.

Politicians are now falling over themselves to get on board the Gareth train, even though, a few months ago many couldn’t have picked him out of a line-up and just a few weeks ago, disparaging his lead in taking the knee, as gesture politics. This was, as David Conn put it so well ‘playing on perceived prejudices to foment division’. Which is shocking enough, but he goes on, ‘One senior football figure told me there was “deep outrage” in the game about Johnson and Patel backing the fans who booed England players taking a knee, describing it as “the deepest insult”, evoking the most shameful period of racism in football. For the first time, a government saw an advantage for itself from siding with racists rather than supporting those who have worked for decades to kick racism out.’

Of course, Gareth has seen all of this bilious sh*t since the start of his career at Crystal Palace, seeing the attitudes towards Mark Bright and Ian Wright. Like any decent man, this surely must have informed his recent positions.

At Palace team-mates actually thought he was posh. Is anyone from Watford posh? And they also thought he spoke like Denis Norden hence the ‘Nord’ nickname, which is even more bizarre because he doesn’t sound like Denis Norden and I’m fairly sure didn’t walk around Palace with a clipboard making acerbic comments.

It was always a case of still waters running deep with Gareth, I think, and football then and largely now, was hardly the place to be expressing any degree of sensitivity. That was weak. Now, it is rightly seen as a strength.

His ascent to the current pinnacle started at Middlesbrough. His time there is often painted by critics as disastrous but it wasn’t. As stated, he led them to two mid-table finishes and then got relegated. This is seen by his critics as proof of his limitations but wiser heads have pointed to the fact that you only learn from your mistakes and from adversity and thus he returned a wiser man and at just the right time. St George’s Park was coming on stream, and lots of good young players began to emerge. But this was a different generation of players. Shouting at them was not working, giving them confidence to express their own talent very much was.

He worked for ITV as a co-commentator in the 2006 World Cup and, post-Boro again in 2010. Clive Tyldesley, who he worked with, has reported him as being a tremendous chap who was great to work. The two struck up a friendship that lasts to this day.

When took over England in 2016, the old-fashioned view about him still predominated. He was too soft. He didn’t have the gravitas, the heft, to be an England manager. Couldn’t open a jar of pickled onions. He was out of his depth. None of this proved to be true, even though at first he seemed to doubt his own suitability to the role. He has grown and learned on the job, and taken his players with him on the journey. He understood from the start that you needed a strong team of support staff around him.

His revolution has been quiet and undemonstrative. The very opposite of grandstanding; all content with little show. And this has worked perfectly in the modern environment. I’m sure he’d be the first to say that he still has much to learn. At 50 he’s got a long managerial career ahead of him if he wants.

With a semi-final and a final in the bag already, he’s got a high standard to maintain and while the team looks to have quality in depth, football is an ornery sport that can sit up and bite you at any moment. Just when you think you’ve got it all sorted is the moment it all falls apart. So his position, though secure at the moment, would, as I say, not take long to be cut down.

 


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What the people say
Not a massive postbag this week. Maybe everyone is looking away, taking a post-tournament breather, or maybe people are all-Garethed-out.

My missus, a Geordie and not prone to dress up anything in flowery language, says of our man, “He’s the sort of lad you’d fancy because he’s just so nice. Just being nice is massively underrated when it comes to making someone f*ckable”.

So with that in mind…

 

– He’s so thoroughly likeable and decent that he makes me want England to win…and I’m Irish.

– Nothing about him worries me.

– Like the way that despite having had an impressive career as a player he has stayed well away from the ‘Proper Football Man’ nonsense that so often imbues English ex players.

– He’s a lucky manager. Which is half the battle.

– Where to begin… Calm, measured, articulate, instantly likeable. He’s tactically more savvy than he’s often given credit for, as well, although maybe a touch conservative. He’s built something special with his England players, and they clearly trust and respect him enormously. I really like him. More than any England manager in my life, I’d say. He’s just so dignified, and that’s dead important isn’t it? I worry the media will eventually bury him. Maybe there’s a shout for him to go before they do, but that would be a huge loss for us.

– One of few football managers you could imagine being successful as an office manager, sympathetically coaxing a team member through a performance review and agreeing some targets for the next quarter. Treats the England players like emotionally intelligent adults, supports them on and off the field. It’s telling there were no grumbles from star players left out of the team during the tournament

– I like Ray Parlour’s story about him when he became Boro manager. Southgate instructed the players that as he was now manager they were to call him ‘gaffer’ and not Gareth, Gaz etc as they had done when he was simply a team mate. ‘What about big nose?’ asked Parlour. Not sure if Parlour made many appearances in his final season at Boro after that. Great bloke and a thoroughly decent human being Southgate – I think he was dealt a bum deal by Boro in the end and we ended up with Strachan, possibly the worst manager in living memory as a result.

– His management style is changing football culture. For a number of reasons it seems entirely inconceivable a manager like Sam Allardyce would go on a network like GB News and support players’ anti-racism campaigning in previous eras.

– At his very core he’s a thoroughly decent man; something that has been missing from leaders in Britain for quite some time.

 

Three great moments
Our man was the manager the day Boro beat Manchester City 8-1 – and City were lucky to get one. Even Afonso Alves scored.

 

The famous pizza advert. He regretted it but it’s still funny. Mind, that’s not a proper pizza, that’s a weird, greasy, vegetable and cheese flan, isn’t it? If I was Italy, I’d sue…

 

And he could score a toe poke with the best of them…

 

Future days
How long will he manage England for? It’s hard to predict but it seems certain he’ll take them to Qatar as it’s only 18 months away. After that it’s only 18 more months until the next Euros. After two World Cups and two Euros, maybe he’ll feel it’s time to move on from a very intense job

There is no pressure on him from the media right now, something that annoys those who take against him. That derives from firstly, there being no obvious replacement candidate for the press to pally up to and push, but also because he’s played the press very well. He’s made players be more available and in less formal situations. He’s anticipated what they will be asked and what “the boys” might want well in advance of the fact and thus planned how to deal with them.

I often see press guys saying what great access they get to England players and how Gareth is so good with them. Of course he’s played them and engineered the situation to be like that so as to avoid being subjected to the vagaries of fashion and commercial interests that dictate newspapers agendas, as much as possible. But we all know that knives can be sharpened very quickly. None more so than Southgate himself.

It is hard to see him managing a club again, for some reason. While offers will surely arrive, I feel there remains a scepticism about him at the highest level. This would evaporate if he won a trophy for England I’m sure, but even so, you don’t want to be stepping down from England to have to go and manage West Ham or Palace. This may just be a failure of my imagination but I think post-England he’ll take an extended break and then go back into the game in a more advisory role. He doesn’t seem the sort to wear the mohair coat on a cold, sleety January night, away to Port Vale in the cup, it would, inevitably, feel like a come down from taking the national side to major tournaments.

He’s already made his mark on English football history. He has nothing to prove to anyone and anyone who thinks he has, he’ll never be able to convince. We all have much to thank him for, not least lifting the mood around the England side which had been entrenched in depression and division for so damn long. Is it a permanent change or will it last only as long as the manager does? Time will tell but the typical. FA policy of appointing the opposite of the recently departed incumbent suggests this is but a blip. In which case, suck it all in, breathe in the Garethness of the current situation for it may be over sooner than we’d like and then, well, who knows?

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