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Gareth Southgate assumes role of psychologist to try to harness negative energy

Gareth Southgate

It was a surprise when Gareth Southgate began a meeting of the England squad on Tuesday evening with a specific subject. But it has been coming.

The England manager wanted to explain to the players why they can win a game – as they did in defeating Serbia 1-0 in their opening group game in the European Championship – and still come in for criticism.

Of course it happens at their clubs. But not, it is felt, with this level of scrutiny. And not when they are victorious.

And it is interesting that Southgate deemed it necessary to say something. But while this is a squad with great experience it also contains 12 players at their first senior tournament.

Despite their Premier League experience some appear to have been taken aback by the criticism.

No one is more qualified to discuss this than Southgate who is into his eighth tournament – four as a player and now four as a manager – and can bring some unique insight.

Southgate celebrates in Russia

Not just that, but Southgate is also a former pundit for ITV, and a former co-commentator, covering three major tournaments as well as big FA Cup and Champions League games most weeks. He left only in 2013 to become England Under-21 manager.

So that gives the 53-year-old’s 11 tournaments in all, including the last time one was held in Germany, the 2006 World Cup and the England circus at Baden-Baden. He spoke from experience when he talked about how there is always a “narrative” about the performances of “a couple of players” after every game.

“The players as a collective recognise that now after the last couple of days,” Southgate said. “We talked to them about it.”
What is interesting is that Southgate took this explanatory role. It means he has, in effect, become something of a sports psychologist as well as a manager.

In the past, the Football Association has employed figures such as Dr Pippa Grange, the head of people and team development, who was built up as such a vital figure at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Her role was undoubtedly inflated and less important than portrayed, not least in the hugely successful drama Dear England, which is returning to the National Theatre.

‘Criticism has clearly hurt’

But the meat of the play, Southgate’s inspirational leadership of England, and the mental and psychological barriers the players have faced, and lifting the weight of the Three Lions shirt, is true.

The FA still has a support staff of sports psychologists but no one is specifically attached to the England team and, to a degree, it therefore appears to be a task that is being undertaken by Southgate. Not least in dealing with some of the concerns – and anger – over the way the team is portrayed.

Criticism has clearly hurt. Southgate does not ban his players from being on social media. He reasons they are adults and need to be treated as such. But he does highlight the importance of trying to avoid it and talks to them about it. He wants the players to have a clear head but knows that may be unrealistic.

It is true that some players still scroll through their phones after games and – evidently – some have been stung by what was said and written following the Serbia match.

The general feeling within the camp? England got the job done and won and should be judged when the other two group games, starting with Denmark here in Frankfurt on Thursday and then Slovenia next week, are played.

Southgate’s job is to temper players’ anger and harness it

There is a touch of naivety to that and also a contradiction. England want the attention and that invites opinion. We should never stifle that. But, to give it context, if England beat Denmark they will have won their first two games at a Euros for the first time ever.

Several players have chosen to come off social media for the tournament. Southgate said he does not watch or read any comment or analysis on England. This has included Erik ten Hag’s withering put down of him on Dutch TV as being an essentially conservative coach. But there is probably an agenda there given the Manchester United manager knows Ineos and Sir Jim Ratcliffe like Southgate.

However, in the same breath Southgate also said: “You become aware of these things because they get sent to you.”

There have been some strong takes on the contributions made by Phil Foden, Trent Alexander-Arnold and even captain Harry Kane against Serbia which has caused bewilderment in the camp and it is part of Southgate’s job to try to temper that while also harnessing it.

The last thing the manager wants is friction. But he will want to focus some of that “them and us” energy.

Energy is important, also. A major worry has been the fitness of the squad after a gruelling season. Southgate has said how challenging it is. Crucially,  according to sports scientists, that is in the head more than in the body. Although it is not for nothing that England chose a hotel with a wonderful spa as their team base. Rest and relaxation are the key but if the players are mentally fatigued then criticism becomes potentially more damaging.

What is intriguing in all of this is how it has turned almost full circle. Southgate has raised expectation and accepts it is not unreasonable for him to be judged on whether England win these Euros, even if they have only ever won one trophy in their entire football history and never overseas. Football is about winning.

There is also the danger for England of where this is heading. Part of the previous complaint about England was players being inhibited because they feared the headlines – as Wayne Rooney admitted after the Iceland debacle at the Euros in 2016. Ultimately it is for them to deal with while we should welcome them voicing their opinions and countering. Southgate the psychologist is attempting to do that.