Gareth Southgate’s last dance begins to the soundtrack of England fans’ toxic rage

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Gareth Southgate, the whole of England is with you. Perhaps this was the first and last point at which these words were ever spoken truthfully. Perhaps it wasn’t even true at the time. The inevitable tranche of snark and eyeball-rolling at Southgate’s latest England squad belies the fact that very little of substance has changed in the three months since the defeat against France.

The seven midfielders are the same as they were in Qatar. Harry Maguire is still in the centre of defence. Harry Kane’s penalty is still airborne. And for all the soul-searching and agonising, Southgate too is still there: still politely explaining himself to an audience that will never listen, still cocking his head slightly as questions are put to him, a gesture that says yes, this is the stupidest formulation of words ever constructed in the English language, but I’m listening.

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So here we are: the last dance. Albeit with a lot less chest-bumping and basketball machismo and a lot more bickering about Ben White. The games against Italy and Ukraine this week mark the start of what will almost certainly be Southgate’s last tournament cycle as England manager. Fire up the phone-in switchboards. Fingers on smartphones. Oh, Gareth. Are you – are we – really going to do this all again?

And of course something important has changed here. The public he has strived so fervently to unite over the past six years isn’t coming back. The sense of closeness and national communion that Southgate has always craved around this team: yep, that’s not going to happen. Is there anybody left on this island yet to make their mind up about this guy? Gareth Southgate, at best 50% of England is with you.

Where this rage comes from is a more complex question. People talk about the politics. I think this gets overstated a little. Much of what is optimistically described as Southgate’s “politics” actually consists of a few mouthed platitudes about not being too quick to judge others or comment on moral issues. Fair enough, it seems to work for Keir Starmer. But beyond the calcified core of racists who pepper his inbox, most people don’t care about that. The way I see it, there are three main reasons why Southgate attracts a level of derision grossly disproportionate to anything he has or hasn’t done in a waistcoat.

First, he didn’t pick your club’s player. Tears for you. Second, he’s not really around enough for us to forge a connection with him. Most of the time, beyond the occasional ghostly sighting at Goodison Park on Match of the Day, you barely even think about him. And then every couple of months he simply dangles himself in our eyeline: too aloof to engage with, too present to ignore, like HMRC or back pain or those little clickbait ads with headlines like “You’ll Never Believe What This Celebrity Looks Like Now”. This is not, and has never been, the foundation of a nourishing relationship.

But the main reason is that Southgate-rage is free. There is no cost or jeopardy involved here. Southgate isn’t going to cancel you or report you to your employer. He isn’t going to call up your phone-in and demand right of reply. He isn’t going to ban you from press conferences. Best of all, you will never be forced to test your clever theorems in practice. Whatever you throw at him, he’s either going to ignore it, or take it.

Occasionally, he really does take it. There were times around the World Cup when Southgate wondered whether the strains and contagions of the job were really worth it. Indeed, there were times when he seemed trapped in a weird pincer movement between those who wanted him to quit for his own sanity and those who wanted him to quit for being a moron. In the midst of which he did perhaps the most interesting, counterintuitive thing possible. He stayed.

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At which point we enter largely charted territory. On some level, Southgate must sense how this probably ends. There are 24 teams at Euro 2024 and 23 of them aren’t going to win. Every England manager ultimately gets run out of town with pitchforks, apart from the one who won a World Cup and then got run out of town with pitchforks. He has a property portfolio and a luxury mansion with a separate cottage. He doesn’t need the money. He certainly doesn’t need the hassle. So why, exactly?

Football is intrinsically distrustful of motive. Maybe, as his critics suggest, Southgate really is being driven by stubbornness or career pragmatism. Maybe the whole thing crashes and burns long before Germany next summer. In the meantime, Southgate endures: calmly walking his dogs around North Yorkshire, calmly popping into the Tesco Express in Harrogate, calmly bringing on another defensive midfielder in the 81st minute, a small reservoir of moderation and optimism in what has always been an utterly toxic shit-throne of a job.

I don’t think we’ll truly appreciate that until he’s gone, and England manager Frank Lampard is on the Overlap opining to Gary Neville on the need to play for the shirt. The impossible job, they once called it, and maybe it still is. But perhaps the nicest thing you could say about Southgate is that he hides it better than anyone. And so for now let’s simply enjoy the final age of Gareth: the baffling masochism of a man walking straight into the jaws of an animal he knows is desperate to eat him.