Gareth Southgate: the 'company man' who changed expectations of an England manager

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Gareth Southgate has become a hugely important figurehead for the national team - GETTY IMAGES
Gareth Southgate has become a hugely important figurehead for the national team - GETTY IMAGES

It is only a small detail, but here is something that gives an insight into Gareth Southgate. Naturally, as per his office as England manager, Southgate has access to executive lounges at airports when he is travelling.

But Southgate will never use them if he is being accompanied by a colleague who does not enjoy similar privileges. Instead he will sit with them in a café or bar, like everyone else, and wait until his flight is called.

It does not mean very much in the hurly-burly and hard edge of winning football matches, by which he is and accepts he should be judged, but it is another sign of the care and decency that Southgate has for those he works with that stretches from the most junior member of staff at the Football Association to the England captain, Harry Kane.

When Southgate was appointed it was scoffed that he was a “company man”, an FA suit. The only accurate part of that description is the fact that no-one has helped progress the organisation as successfully as he has.

There appears an inevitability that, one day, and once he is done with England and club management, Southgate will become FA chairman and his popularity, internally, is remarkable. Such is his value, and the direction he is taking, that even if England flop at the Euros his job is not under threat.

In normal circumstances that would be a dangerously complacent state of affairs and maybe the public mood might dictate otherwise should England lose all three group games and crash out of the tournament. Certainly Southgate has come in for more criticism from outside.

But the FA’s stance is indicative of the work Southgate has done as a whole to move England forward, breaking down barriers, empowering players and dispelling mental blocks such as winning a penalty shoot-out. There have been good results on and off the pitch.

At the same time it should be remembered that the 50-year-old had his own reservations about taking the job, and initially turned it down on a caretaker basis after Roy Hodgson left following the debacle at the last Euros in 2016, not least because he wanted it on his own terms.

There is no doubt that England are in a better place than under Southgate’s predecessors, perhaps stretching back to the manager he often references and who he played most successfully under, Terry Venables at Euro 96.

It helps that Southgate has a clarity of thought and a realistic grasp of what comes with his job, which is no surprise given his own personal experiences as both a player and as a club manager with Middlesbrough, after which he ended up bruised. And left with a point to prove.

When the media centre at England’s St George’s Park training base opened on Tuesday, Southgate came down to address the journalists and spoke of his hopes for Euro 2020, how eagerly the tournament has been anticipated given what everyone has been through, but also added that he did not expect an easy ride should England struggle. He then went on to beat a reporter in what has come to be a traditional three-dart challenge with a journalist against a member of the England squad.

Southgate’s biggest strength is what perhaps is most needed to succeed in international football: man management. His assistant, Steve Holland, who has worked with him from their time in charge of the England under-21s, is well placed to assess given his years, also, at the elite level as a coach at Chelsea.

Southgate alongside England assistant manager Steve Holland - PA
Southgate alongside England assistant manager Steve Holland - PA

“The man-management side of it I think particularly at the highest level is fundamental and certainly that would be my experience at Chelsea working with different guys,” says Holland, who worked under managers as diverse as Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink at Stamford Bridge.

“That's an area that Gareth, I think, scores particularly highly and he has great respect from all of the squad. His communication skill, he's always organised, he tries to communicate individually with every player over a period of time and not go too long without having a conversation with somebody on whatever it is that's going on in their life.”

It has helped create one of the most harmonious England squads ever, even if Southgate has also had to deal with a number of dramatic incidents – including Raheem Sterling’s attack on Joe Gomez and Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood inviting women back to the team hotel in Iceland – that have raised questions as to whether he has been too soft, at times.

But Southgate is brave and bold and has continued to transition the England squad with 16 of the 26 taking part in the Euros going into their first senior tournament. Only nine played at the World Cup in Russia just three years ago.

That in itself has led to accusations that Southgate has being buying himself time by making the squad younger, but he has not shirked from the expectation that they need to deliver and that England have a crop of exciting, talented players.

The other accusation he has faced is that tactically he has come up short and, with the World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia, he accepts mistakes were made. It is why he and Holland have poured over that match more than any other. “I think the experiences that he's had over the last three years will certainly stand him in better stead as a consequence and that is on and off the pitch,” Holland says. We will soon find out.

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