In the new era under Gareth Southgate, and perhaps for the first time in the England team’s history, the manager has asked his players to address him by his first name rather than adhere to those old conventions of the game that dictate that the boss should always be known as “the boss”.
It is a small part of what Southgate hopes will be a different culture around the team which he feels is more suited to the mindset of the modern player, often a superstar brand in his own right, who has to be given the leeway to make decisions of his own. Southgate does not want to be the authoritarian figure, rather he feels that all successful teams are guided by their manager but led, on the pitch, by the players themselves.
If that sounds like it comes from the philosophy of the archetype of the modern teacher, then it is worth considering that Eddie Jones said exactly the same thing when he addressed the England football squad this week. The England rugby head coach, more of a demon headmaster at first glance, told England’s footballers that the best teams are capable of making decisions themselves.
At Tottenham Hotspur’s splendid training ground in Enfield on Friday, England had their final training session before they play Lithuania in a World Cup qualifier on Sunday afternoon. Southgate is shuffling the pack again – a return to a four-man defence and Jermain Defoe in place of Jamie Vardy – to break down the 107th Fifa-ranked team in the world although it is the long-term culture change he is also interested in.
On the question of a team that leads itself, Southgate said that over his career he had discovered that was a natural consequence of having strong characters. “Whether my managers consciously did it or not, it’s what happens. When you have a strong dressing room and good players, they lead it.
“Our job is to create the right environment and culture for the lads to be successful, to give them the right tools. Most important of all in this role is that they feel they can just go and play. Do what they’ve done since they were little. Do it instinctively. I can make it more difficult by overloading them and putting too much in their heads. Our job is to give them a framework. The reason they’re in the building is because they’re good players.”
There were echoes in there of Southgate’s final season as a player in 2005-2006 when there were strong suggestions that he and a number of senior players took control of Middlesbrough during Steve McClaren’s last months in charge. They reached the Uefa Cup final in Eindhoven that May where they were well beaten by Sevilla and when McClaren departed after the World Cup finals to take over England, Southgate was given the Middlesbrough job.
It was Southgate’s experience playing under Terry Venables with England 20 years ago that he was more keen to reference, another time when he felt he worked with a manager who was prepared to give the players a chance to shape the way they played.
“His coaching was brilliant because he was prepared to allow people to make decisions on the field, ask questions of you, challenge you in different ways. I’m sure he would say the most important thing is good players and good characters. You see that dynamic in lots of clubs at different moments.
“I don’t think it’s unique to any football club. How you get to that path might be in different ways. But in an international environment, the quicker we get to the point where the players feel we believe in them and they can go on and achieve the better.”
He decided to abandon the orthodoxy of players addressing him as “boss” on the ground that it was, in his view “outdated”. There was no announcement to the England media pack, it simply became obvious over a period of time and, with Ryan Bertrand alongside his manager yesterday for the team’s final press conference, it was noticeable that the player had dispensed with the formalities. “Maybe some people might see ‘boss’ as a sign of respect,” Southgate said, “but you can call someone ‘boss’ with zero respect. And you can call someone by their name with more respect. To me it makes no difference. It’s a slightly archaic thing we have in our game, ‘boss’. In football it’s ingrained. We do it because we do it. But why do we do it? For me it’s no issue at all.”
Bertrand, 27, and now enjoying the best period of his career after finally leaving Chelsea permanently two years ago, is one of those whom Southgate hopes will take on the new way of working.
The Southampton left-back, regarded as an independent thinker in the game, said that he listened with interest to Jones’s speech to the England squad on Thursday.
“In the end, it’s the players who lead,” Bertrand said. “It’s the players who need to be looking after one another, making sure the expectations are constantly met. You have to breathe that culture, it has to be 24-7. You can’t have off days. That was very much one of the main philosophies which enabled them [the England rugby team] to achieve.
“At club level you get more time, and the clubs have their own philosophies in place and they plug people into that. But Gareth has tried to give us a direction, plans and ambitions behind closed doors that we want to achieve.”
“An open culture” was how Bertrand described it, and goodness knows England have tried everything else. We are certainly well beyond the era when players lived in fear of a manager, and the old notion of the boss is fading alongside that too.