Southgate is England’s perfect leader – on and off the pitch

Date published: Friday 18th October 2019 1:59

Who’s this week’s hero, Johnny?
This week’s hero is a very nice man who wears a very nice suit and waistcoat, has a very nice beard and speaks very nicely. Oh and he’s a rather good England manager. That’ll be Gareth Southgate, then.


What have they done to deserve this then?
This acknowledgement isn’t for his work in relation to football on the pitch this week (though a 6-0 win should never be ignored), but for how he handled absolutely everything else. In Bulgaria especially, he had to combine his role as a coach with one as an international diplomat, man-manager, upstanding righteous member of the modern world and representative of English football. In a situation where the route out of Sofia was littered with potential buckets in which to place a foot, (and one recoils in horror at the thought of how some previous incumbents might have fared) Gareth skipped lightly around them all with the sort of polite grace that is an extremely rare quality in football and, indeed, in life more broadly. He was also sincere. And when it comes to racism, these things really matter.

His great art is to think about the correct words to use in such a situation, and perhaps even more, to consider how they will be received and interpreted by the press and media. He seems so well-prepared and unfazed, always one step ahead.

He was aware that some would be saying the players should have walked off the pitch, or he should’ve taken them off, so he was already prepared how to address that and to explain the thought processes in making the decisions that he did.

Marina Hyde, simply one of our finest writers, typically got it spot on.

‘Gareth Southgate reported ruefully of his conversations with England’s black players: “Sadly, because of their experiences in our own country, they are hardened to racism. I don’t know what that says about our society but that’s the reality.”

‘Yet again, you have to salute Southgate, who always confronts the more complex aspects of a situation, however tempting it must be to ignore them when some of the worst extremes were on show. What an extraordinary leader he is, for a generation of players that inspire in so many different ways. (Very incidentally, it should always be remembered that he is in position completely by accident. All the FA people who were paid to find expensive failures – sporting and moral – to be England manager only alighted by default on the caretaker when their other terrible choices had flamed out. To say the understudy turned out to be the very best of them doesn’t begin to cover it).’

It is worth bearing in mind that being England manager, until Southgate, had been a poisoned chalice since 1970, driving good men grey, bald and old within a year or two as the press routinely eviscerated them for perceived or actual inadequacies. Yet now, turning Gareth’s head into a root vegetable has never seemed less likely. Partly and significantly this is because tabloid newspapers are just not anywhere near as important or influential as they once were, nor as important as some in the industry still think they are. Whatever line they take, while still able to lead the gullible by the nose, with ever-sinking sales their copy is seen by much less than even ten years ago. There is also a huge section of the public that genuinely hates tabloid papers, The Sun especially, and consider them to be such slurry for the brain that they are disparaged or ignored.

But it’s also the case that Gareth is simply too good to be beastly about. It’s not to say he’s the best manager ever – not yet anyway, he has many years ahead of him to become that. However, he absolutely is the best man for the political side of the England job, a side that has probably never been more important. Intelligent, patient, modern, savvy and well-versed in the ways of the media, one has the feeling that he is a man in control at all times. But coupled with this is an ability to understand and empathise with the modern player so well that he garners respect from his charges as well as inspiring them to play their game to a good standard.

There is so much representational, inspirational and political work to do as the head of a footballing nation in 2019. You need to walk a path that navigates the strengths and weaknesses of the FA, understanding how to work with them and, let’s face it, manipulating them into doing the right thing. And of course, it requires the manager to know what that right thing actually is.

It isn’t a coincidence that Gareth’s era in charge has seen a raft of young talent get a chance to shine. It’s because he worked with some at youth levels, because he brought a new, fresh approach to the job in being prepared to drop big names, and because he’s learned lessons from the past and from his own experiences as an England player.

But perhaps more than all of these things, he simply represents England in such a – and I’m going to use a word that is often used as a criticism but which should be anything but – nice manner. He seems so nice, so decent, so empathetic, modest, sensible and understanding. The sort of person we want to do well in an era that is all too often the very opposite of those qualities. At times more like a relationship counsellor, or a HR manager, he just seems very Now. And that is something to really celebrate.

He has made a job which has always been hard look a lot easier than is typical, aided by good performances and results, of course. But those have, in no small measure, happened because of how and who he is.


Media reaction?
As ever, the tabloid press was keen to paint England and their fans as saints and the beastly Bulgars as absolute rotters and in doing so, went against Gareth’s own words about us having plenty of issues of our own to address.

At the moment, there is no kudos, clicks or mileage in bullying our man. While there will always be differences of opinion on tactics and team selections, results and performances have been entertaining. And that’s pretty much all of us ever want. We’ve usually beaten weaker nations but we haven’t always produced entertaining performances in doing so, but now we do. However, the setback against the Czech Republic showed how quickly the goodwill can unravel in unreasonable England.

But every paper had words of praise for him after Monday’s problems and rightly so. Hopefully memories will not be short in recalling the excellent way he handled what was a very tricky situation.


Anyone grumpy about it?
The Bulgarians. The manager didn’t think there was a problem. A reporter told Gareth to f*** off. However, I have to say, their reaction was exactly the sort that would have been common in England in a parallel situation 25 or 30 years ago. Monkey chants and anything like Nazi salutes were often dismissed as “a few troublemakers” and if you made a fuss about such a thing, you would have been treated as a troublemaker. You would have been told to laugh it off and if you couldn’t laugh it off, you’d have been told you had a chip on your shoulder and you were the problem. Yeah. How do you like them apples?


What the people say
It’s interesting that fan respect for Gareth is often expressed in terms of what he isn’t. And what he isn’t is Sam Allardyce, both literally and emblematically. And it is his adult demeanour and behaviour that heralds much praise. Many of us crave this in football, a sport that attracts and often seems to encourage infantilism in its workers, as well as refining the celebration of anti-intellectualism into an artform all of its own. I suspect a few years ago, Gareth, as very much not an alpha male, would have been thought a little too quiet and non-macho to be an England manager. Too many could not have seen past that. But now, the very idea that we might have some crude, shouty, self-aggrandising egomaniac as a manager seems not just old-fashioned but actually very weird. He has entirely and totally moved expectations of what the role is and how it should be performed to new territory and set new standards. That is quite amazing, really.

‘Gareth has restored pride in the national side. Always dignified, honest and passionate.’

‘Almost statesman-like with his demeanour. Articulate, precise, thoughtful. Undoubtedly should have been given longer at Boro.’

‘As a player he played roughly 150 games for Palace, 190 for Villa and 160 for Boro and is admired by fans of all three clubs. Can’t be many players with that sort of record.’

‘GS has led by example, educating manners, standards of common decency and humility in to young men who’d lost touch with reality. He’s made the national team relatable whilst encouraging players to be better people. If you don’t buy into his ethos (Hart/Wilshere) you won’t be picked.’

‘He handled the whole situation with aplomb. He was a classy player and is a classy man.’

‘Could have been one of Boro’s best managers, not given enough time, treated appallingly but behaved with great dignity. Great captain and honest gentleman. Not personally an England fan, I am enjoying watching them under his management.’

‘If we can forgive him for the awful pizza advert he must be doing something right…’

‘Picking players on form and because they fit a system, managing expectations and getting the media on side, all are knighthood worthy, but then he won a penalty shootout and that sealed it. Perfect international manager for England.’

‘Just… a decent human being.’

‘He’s really excellent at everything apart from the coaching bit. He seems to be OK at that. It’s not the worst combination, given that Klopp’s not available.’

‘Deserves a mention on the grounds that he has now made my wearing of a three-piece suit to work cool (or at least acceptable) again. That and his general humility and awareness that football is more than just a game.’

‘He handled the situation showing considered and measured thought and didn’t succumb to taking the moral high ground over racism in society. We are lucky to have a manager who is rational and intelligent both on and off the pitch.’

‘Easy one, with all the problems in the game, so many of which you talk about in your excellent book, Gareth has somehow brought some pride, passion and most importantly love for the national team. He speaks with so much common sense about football and life!’

‘Top, top man.’

‘In a parallel universe, Big Sam didn’t get out the group in the last World Cup, playing early 2000’s hoofball. Southgate was the FA’s perfect accident. That pint of wine did us all a huge favour.’

‘Everything we needed, and everything we need, as an England manager. I mean that. He has the job-lot. Humility, dignity, a genuinely great man manager as well. And I think he’s tactically better than he’s given credit for. He is a really, genuinely likeable England manager.’

‘It feels like we have a proper grown-up in charge of the team for the first time in years.’

‘Never rated him as a player until he signed for Boro and now always in my Boro all-time XI. Measured, professional and a good bloke and really glad to see him doing well after a false start in management at the Riverside.’

‘Allowed us to dream again, even if it only ends up being for one summer.’


What does the future hold?
Gareth looks set to be the manager for as long as he wants. His stock is higher with the FA than anyone in recent decades. He was employed as a pair of safe hands, and he is that, but no-one thought he’d combine that off-field, morally upstanding non-pint-o’-wine trustworthiness with a far more radical outlook, both tactically and in player selection.

There is a real chance of success next summer. A total collapse of form would of course signal the end, but another semi-final performance should carry him through to the appalling prospect of the next World Cup in a country where no World Cup should ever be played.

There has been largely fantastical talk of taking over at Old Trafford or Spurs, but Gareth’s talent for the national job and all it entails, as well as the identification and development of younger talent, has been so successful that it may be the case that he’s a rare football lifeform that is actually more suited to a national job than a club. If that proves to be the case and Southgate himself likes it that way, with the best squad of players we’ve had for such a long time delivering excellent performances, there’s no reason why he can’t be in the job for a decade.

However it has happened, we’re so lucky to have him at the helm and it’s important that we don’t only appreciate that fact once he’s moved on and Steve Bruce is being photographed at Wembley with an England scarf above his head.

John Nicholson


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