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Gareth Southgate: England’s gentleman general proving nice guys don’t have to finish last

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

The man derided as an FA yes man has got the nation saying “Yes we can!”

English football’s governing body went for Mr Nice Guy and nice things have happened. From a World Cup semi-final to the quarter-finals of the Euros and who knows?

There was a telling admission from FA chief executive Mark Bullingham last week, revealing England had received no serious interest in Gareth Southgate from club suitors. After last night’s landmark victory, perhaps he will feature on a few more radars.

For this was a match in which his message may have finally cut through.

The FA need no convincing. They wanted to secure his future beyond next year’s World Cup, regardless of last night’s result. In their mind, they have got something special — no matter what anyone else thinks.

This was a performance to justify their faith. Southgate has proven himself a manager to break boundaries, bust myths and exceed expectations.

He is also a manager prepared to do it his way, no matter the consequences. Perhaps that is born out of the FA’s unwavering trust and perhaps that is something they should be congratulated for. They have got an awful lot wrong since the last time the country defeated Germany in a knockout game at a major tournament, so praise should come when they get something right.

On a defining night, Southgate got the big calls right. England won, so of course he did. That is the way it works and he knows it. Had they lost, it would have been all on him, which is why his single-mindedness and the courage in his convictions is so impressive.

After three clean sheets in the group stages, he switched up his formation to go like-for-like with Germany, with three at the back, and virtually nullified the threat of Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich.

Southgate ignored calls to start Jack Grealish, going for the greater pace of Bukayo Saka, who, along with Raheem Sterling, repeatedly broke Germany’s shape by running with the ball and attracting opposition players like iron filings to a magnet.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

And when the time came to make a decisive intervention, he did just that — unleashing Grealish to lift the Wembley crowd and down the Germans.

The scorer of the decisive goal — Sterling — is one many would have dropped long ago; a man Pep Guardiola is prepared to let leave Manchester City this summer.

Southgate has not reacted to Sterling’s indifferent club form, instead keeping faith in a player who has gone through the gamut of experiences in an England shirt and made these Euros his own.

There was even a goal for Harry Kane of all people — proof that Southgate could do no wrong on this epic night for English football. He is a man who seems destined to be misunderstood.Nice does not have to be weak. He has had to be strong not to bow to public pressure by throwing in every attacking gem at his disposal.

He has ignored the criticisms over his cautious approach and stuck steadfastly with the double six pairing of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.

And his longstanding trust in Jordan Pickford was also justified, as the Everton goalkeeper came up with two big saves to maintain England’s unblemished defensive record at these finals.

Southgate continues to break new ground by believing in himself when so many others still need to be convinced.

Yet, even in this most triumphant of moments came another example of England’s gentleman general after catching sight of David Seaman on one of Wembley’s big screens. “I can’t change the fact the guys I played with in ’96 didn’t get to play in a final and so that will always live with me,” he said in reference to his penalty shootout miss.

“But what this group have been able to do is give a new generation a lot of happy memories and another afternoon where they’ve made a bit of history. We’ve done that a fair bit over the last four years.”

Nice guys do not have to finish last.

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