Mediawatch special: On Henry Winter, Gareth Southgate and a bizarre call for ‘fury’

Editor F365
Gareth Southgate reacts to a decision in England's defeat to France.

For a man who often errs on the side of the anodyne (no player can truly retire until it has been declared to 1.3m Twitter followers that said player was always a ‘class act’), The Times’ Henry Winter is bizarrely vitriolic about Gareth Southgate.

In June, he wrote that the spittle-flecked fans at Molineux were right to criticise Southgate and then before the World Cup began he chastised him for taking the ‘out-of-form Harry Maguire’ and urged him to pick an England XI featuring Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben White.

And perhaps there’s the clue to this vitriol as Winter has long written mournfully about Alexander-Arnold (a real ‘class act’) and his fringe role with England. Which is the equivalent of scoring a David Nugent-style England tap-in on Twitter.

A reminder – were it required – that in September both Liverpool and Alexander-Arnold were absolute dogsh*t.

But now the vitriol is turned up to 11 in a Times article headlined ‘New manager needed if England are to end decades of failure’. It’s a strong start to blame Southgate – the 12th and most successful permanent England manager since they won a major tournament – for ‘decades of failure’ but perhaps Winter has been stitched up by his subs?

Nope. If anything, they did not go in hard enough. For Winter is angry. Really, really angry.

It starts in the most bizarre of fashions, with English people being castigated for, well, being English.

‘Where is the fury? Why did England go so quietly into the desert night? The odd bleat about a poor referee apart, England’s departure was all head-shakes, handshakes, a few tears but apparent acceptance. “It was not to be,” was the verdict of the FA. The meek will not inherit the earth, let alone the World Cup.’

What the actual f*** did he expect? England lost a game of football and exited a tournament at pretty much exactly the stage you would expect after better-than-expected performances. Did you expect histrionics? Threats on the referee? A ritual beheading?

As a starting point for a piece calling for the sacking of a manager who is responsible for six of England’s 12 knock-out victories at major tournaments since the 1966 World Cup, ‘why isn’t everyone making more fuss?’ is a) truly bizarre and b) suggestive that the arguments that follow are flimsy at best.

‘Fortunately, there are more rigorous minds at St George’s Park prepared to analyse the tournament and come to more insightful conclusions, namely England having to learn to kill off good teams. They failed against Croatia at the 2018 World Cup (despite leading after five minutes), Italy at Euro 2020 (despite leading after two minutes) and now France despite being on top for significant periods. Where was the anger at this serial failure? The same pain, again and again.’

Well it’s not the same pain, is it? And it’s not the same scenario. England were outplayed by Croatia – who had more possession and double the shots – in 2018. They were then outplayed in the Euro 2020 final as Italy had 65% possession and almost treble the shots. But then against France on Saturday night they had more possession, twice the number of shots, were generally the better side and came within a missed penalty of at least forcing extra-time. Against the actual world champions. These three things are not the same things.

‘“But sport can have fine margins and on the day, against the current world champions, it was not to be.” So said the FA. That’s surrender, to the fates, to the foe. The FA talks about “fine margins”, and Harry Kane could have taken England into extra time, but 56 years without a trophy suggests it is more than “it was not to be” and “fine margins”. It’s about mindset, ruthlessness, about not accepting another defeat against an elite side, not responding to another exit from another tournament with a polite platitude. Tea anyone? One sugar-coating or two?’

Pray tell us, what is the appropriate response to narrow defeat against one of the best teams in the world? We know what’s not the appropriate response: placing blame for 56 years without a trophy at the feet of the 52-year-old man who has come closest to actually winning one.

And yes, it is fine margins. A penalty shoot-out defeat is fine margins. A missed penalty to equalise is fine margins. And that’s fine (margins).

Winter also seems to have entirely forgotten that England beat an ‘elite side’ in Germany at a major tournament literally last year. Which is ironic as he wrote at the time that ‘the memories of this momentous match will never, ever fade’. In the end, it only took 18 months.

‘It’s about France’s skilled conductor Antoine Griezmann being on a booking and still tackling, still running the show. It’s about acquiring a winner’s attitude. It’s also about the dismay that never ebbs at the really big missed opportunity of the Southgate era now drawing to a close in the dusk of the desert. July 11, 2021 was the day. If Southgate had been more decisive in the second half of the European Championship final, responding quicker to the changes of Italy’s Roberto Mancini, England might have won.’

Possibly, but as Winter wrote at the time: ‘Kane and his team-mates gave everything in this tournament, took the lead here at Wembley through the magnificent Luke Shaw, but were defeated on penalties by the best team of the Euros.’

‘England’s latest tournament trauma should not be met by a bland statement and blithe shrug of the shoulders by the suits. The players disperse back to their clubs, Southgate’s probably going, and the loyal fans who came here in their thousands are going back home, back to work, and the misery will subside.’

Again we are moved to ask ‘what the actual f*** did he expect?’ Did he want Southgate to be hung, drawn and quartered because his captain missed a penalty and allowed the actual world champions to win? On those grounds, what should the Spain coach have suffered for losing to Morocco? It presumably involves castanets and at least one orifice.

And yes, the misery will subside and should subside. Because that’s how football works. Sometimes there need be no inquest beyond ‘f***ing hell, you would have expected Harry Kane to score that, wouldn’t you?’. And Southgate should perhaps leave his post, exhausted at the level of criticism he suffers for being very good though admittedly not exceptional at his job.

‘The history books still stand as an indictment of the FA, needing updating with the latest stop on England’s post-1966 world tour of despair from Leon to the Bernabeu, the Azteca to Turin, Saint-Étienne to Shizuoka, Gelsenkirchen to Bloemfontein, Sao Paulo to Moscow and now Al Khor, “it was not to be”, part 11. And don’t even mention the Euros.’

We really should not have to explain this but not all failures are equal, Henry. Bloemfontein is not the same as Moscow and Sao Paulo is not the same as Al Khor. Just like Liverpool’s failure to win the Premier League title in 2018/19 was not the same as their failure to win the title in 2011/12. And nobody said then that Jurgen Klopp should hang for coming closer than most of the Liverpool managers that came before him.

Winter then advises that Southgate could join the FA board and writes: ‘The FA has only Jobi McAnuff for insight into the dressing room and he’s an independent non-executive. (The French Football Federation has the former international Marc Keller on its board)’.

Pesky fact: Marc Keller has seven French caps. On that basis should England bring in Jake Livermore?

Winter then attempts to tell us what Southgate actually did wrong in this tournament…

‘After the frustration of his fixation with caution and a back five, Southgate embraced adventure, played with a back four, went more on the front foot at this World Cup and his overall approach cannot be criticised.’

Ah, that old ‘fixation’ with a back five he has played in less than a third of the England games he has managed.

There is the usual trot through ‘did not make substitutions quick enough’, which ends with ‘Southgate still could have thrown Callum Wilson into the mixer. Or turned to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s long-range passing’. Indeed he could. But England were dominant against France and the usual reaction to domination is not Change Everything. Especially when you have just sauntered serenely through the tournament with those players.

‘Overall, and in the preceding games, Southgate’s in-game changes worked in Doha. But is he a winner? Does he have that fury within that propels some managers?’

Oh FFS. Is one of the most-vaunted writers in football journalism really being reduced to ‘is he just too nice?’?

‘Southgate has undeniably started something special with England. Now a more experienced tactician is needed to provide the finish, instilling greater ruthlessness.’

This is so facile. And so ridiculously dismissive of the work that Southgate has done in bringing inclusiveness, belief and joy to England. What happens to all that when you bring in a ‘more experienced tactician’? Does all that just magically remain? Do the players all just remember the good times but now have Alexander-Arnold delivering pin-point cross-field balls (sometimes)?

So who next?

‘England’s manager should be English, a desire not borne of blinkered patriotism but of appreciation of the importance of St George’s Park, the £120 million hub developing homegrown coaches. This is about pathway, about improving the level of English managers. From an FA perspective, the obvious successor to Southgate would have been Graham Potter but for his move to Chelsea. Ditto Eddie Howe at Newcastle United.’

Because obviously Eddie Howe is known for his ‘fury’.

‘The FA would consider British coaches such as the inspiring Welshman, Steve Cooper, currently reinvigorating Nottingham Forest and the Northern Irishman, Brendan Rodgers, getting Leicester City back on track.’

So Steve Cooper then, who is a) not English and b) currently in the bottom three of the Premier League. Oh and c) has managed fewer games than Southgate. But is he furious though? That’s the real quiz.

‘Whoever succeeds Southgate inherits a treasure trove of a dressing-room. But where is the anger that one of the best groups ever assembled and sent from these shores returned last night having beaten only distracted Iran, limited Wales and depleted Senegal? England have a squad to rival most others out in Doha. People talk about England developing from the 2018 World Cup, and so they should given the increased level of quality available to Southgate. He did not have Saka, Jude Bellingham, Foden nor Declan Rice, all aged 23 or under, at the Luzhniki.’

There’s that call for ‘anger’ again. Why? They did have ‘a squad to rival most others out in Doha’ but ultimately lost to one of the favourites at the exact same stage as Portugal and Brazil. There is no anger because there is really nothing to be angry about.

Winter is right that England ‘did not have Saka, Jude Bellingham, Foden nor Declan Rice, all aged 23 or under, at the Luzhniki’ and that’s why that defeat to Croatia was different. They were outplayed in 2018 but not outplayed in 2022. You want us to be angry about a defeat to a slightly better side by the narrowest of margins. And that is frankly ludicrous.

‘Southgate embraced Kane at the end, offering words of comfort, the recurring image of the years of hurt although usually following shootouts: Bobby Robson with Chris Waddle, Terry Venables with Southgate, Glenn Hoddle with Paul Ince, Eriksson with Darius Vassell and Steven Gerrard, Roy Hodgson with Ashley Cole, Southgate himself with Saka last year, now Kane this year. That’s why the fury should persist, at this flaw from 12 yards. England need to be more clinical, an old refrain.’

Losing on penalty shoot-outs is not the same as one man missing a penalty. It’s ridiculous that we even have to write those words. Kane – one of the best penalty-takers in the world – did not miss because England miss penalties; he missed because taking a second penalty against the same goalkeeper is notoriously tricky. And we should be furious about that?

Seriously, go and see somebody and embrace talking therapy if you are furious about a very good football team losing to another very good football team by one goal.