When Gareth Southgate was first put in charge of the England team, one national newspaper described the public reaction as a “mass wall of despair”.
Not only that, Southgate’s only previous senior managerial experience involved taking Middlesbrough down from the Premier League, then getting sacked.
But he has barely put a foot wrong.
Qualification for the World Cup was achieved without alarm, the end of Wayne Rooney’s international career was handled with kid gloves, and one of England’s youngest ever squads will travel to Russia in a new system that looks to be playing to their strengths.
Clear-thinking, straight-talking and appearing to be a thoroughly decent bloke, Southgate has somehow got England to a World Cup with optimism and realism in equal measure.
Here, the people who know him best speak of the real Southgate. From being advised to become a travel agent, to throwing up over the Crystal Palace chairman, Euro ’96 and beyond.
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‘I’m at Palace next year’
Southgate, a boyhood Manchester United fan, attended Pound Hill Junior School and Hazelwick School, both in Crawley, Sussex. He has said both schools were “fundamental” in him taking up football, largely because of his PE teachers. Dave Palmer taught Southgate at Hazelwick.
He was very self-assured. I remember the last chat I had with him as a schoolboy. We were talking about the future and I was asking the boys what they would be doing the following year.
Gareth said “I’m at Crystal Palace” and it dawned on me that was what he would be doing. As a 16-year-old, he was talking with absolute certainty.
In those days, 60-odd boys used to turn up for football trials when they joined the school. He stood out straight away because he was so classy and had so much time. He used to glide around the pitch.
He was a multi-talented sportsman. He played rugby for the school, to the extent that when we went on a football and rugby tour to France, Gareth played both sports. He was quite quick, 200m was his best track event, but he also won the county championship and held the school record in the triple jump.
He was mature, had a good a sense of humour and a big smile. He was respected by his peers and teachers. He was very thoughtful and clever, as well as having a sharp wit. He set himself him high expectations in everything he did, either in the classroom or on the sports field.
There’s always a discussion when someone has so many different talents about where they take their life. He could have taken an academic route, or a sporting route. So many boys I’ve known have had high hopes in football, but there’s never any certainty. Gareth was sure he was on the right path.
‘I told him to become a travel agent’
Southgate was released by Southampton as a youngster. He came to the attention of Palace youth-team manager Alan Smith, who would later make him captain of the first team. Even after they both left Palace, Southgate and Smith remained close. Southgate visited Smith within 24 hours of missing his Euro ’96 penalty and later, when manager of Middlesbrough, took Smith to Teesside as an advisor.
I had a doubt whether or not he had a career in professional football in him. We had one particular game, which we lost, and I called him into the office and said: “Gareth, I think you’re too bright to do this job. I think you have to make a choice. If it was my choice, I think you should become a travel agent.”
He was upset, but he took it on board. Instead of releasing him, I decided to go the other way and made him captain of the youth team, because I thought he had leadership qualities. Not because of what he said, but the way he went about his job.
I introduced him to an estate agent friend of mine that got him to do some work after training. He was measuring up, mundane stuff, looking to see if a property could be marketed or not. All of these things help build the character that you become. It opened his eyes to what was out there and showed him what is was like to deal with people outside football.
I was there when he threw up over the chairman, Ron Noades. It was a trip abroad and I had let the lads out for one night. Ron had his white shoes on and Gareth managed to do it. I heard plenty about it from Ron the next day. I can’t repeat what Ron’s words were, but I do know Gareth was very apologetic.
No-one can say he has had it easy. He has had to fight for everything he has got, even if he did come from a middle-class Crawley background. To miss the penalty at Euro 1996, to be sacked by Middlesbrough, these are things that chip away from you. They have made him a stronger character.
I know he went for one manager’s job many years ago and he didn’t get it because he was told he was too polite. He has principles. That does put him slightly aside from others. He has a real loyalty. He hasn’t forgotten his roots. These are all things that make up his DNA that have led him to the England job.
‘He was better at song titles than penalties’
Southgate played every minute of England’s Euro ’96 campaign, which ended with his penalty miss against Germany. When he became England manager, he said he did not think he would ever have to go through a worse experience. Alan Shearer was part of the England team that night at Wembley.
Not long ago, I made a documentary about Euro ’96 and I asked Gareth if I could speak to him. He politely declined because he knew that one thing we wanted to talk about was the penalty miss and he’d had enough of it. Still to this day it will be hurting him.
He took a penalty because he’s brave. The manager was looking around for characters and one or two put their heads down, not wanting to take a penalty. That wasn’t Gareth. After the five designated penalty takers were allotted, the manager was asking ‘who’s after that?’ and Gareth stuck his hand up.
I would never criticise anyone that has the courage, the balls, to put his hand up to take a penalty, particularly in those circumstances. When you have 90,000 in the stadium, 10 or 15 million watching on TV, it takes a certain character to put his hand up to take a penalty. There was nothing that I or anyone else could say to make him feel any better.
Two years later we were at France ’98. Tournaments can be a bit boring, doing the same thing for four or five weeks. We came up with the idea to fit as many song titles as possible into the interviews that we gave.
Because the players’ room was next door to the TV room and the interviews were going out live, once we got the song title in, you could hear a roar when the players realised you’d done it.
Gareth managed to sneak Club Tropicana and Careless Whispers into an interview with Bob Wilson. He was definitely one of the brighter ones, so he was better at that than most. He was certainly better at song titles than he was at taking penalties.
‘He was already like a manager’
Southgate had caught the eye of Sven-Goran Eriksson when the Swede was manager of Lazio. When Eriksson became England manager in 2001, he had to manage Southgate’s disappointment at falling behind the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell. Southgate was part of the England squad for the 2002 World Cup, but did not play a single minute. He won the last of his 57 caps against Sweden in 2004, two years before the end of Eriksson’s spell in charge.
He came to me and asked for a meeting. He wanted to know how to make himself better. That’s not easy, to keep working, on and on to make yourself better than players like Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand. It’s a little unusual. In my experience, players don’t come to the manager.
He wants to resolve problems with talks, more than with shouting. It was easy to speak to him. He was never angry or irritated, he was always very polite.
I could see that he was a thinking man. He thought about the training we did, why we did something in a certain way. You could see that he lived for football. He was very eager to learn and I wouldn’t be surprised if at that time he was thinking of being a manager in the future.
I have had many players who are not interested who the opponent is, they just want to play, but he was never the sort of player that did his training, then left without thinking about it. I’m quite sure he took it home with him. When you have players like that, you can see in the future they will be coaches or managers.
When he was a player, he was already like a manager, a coach. I’m sure that Southgate, in the past, has talked to a lot of managers with a lot of experience, trying to find out secrets and advice. He is a good talker, but an even better listener.
‘They nicknamed him ‘Insurance’ at Boro’
Southgate ended his playing career to become Middlesbrough manager in the summer of 2006. At 35, he was the youngest manager in the Premier League. He guided Boro to 12th and 13th over the following two seasons, but presided over their relegation in 2009. He was sacked on 21 October 2009, despite the club lying fourth in the Championship. Michael Caulfield was the Boro psychologist from soon after Southgate was appointed until they were relegated from the top flight.
When he was still playing, his Boro team-mates nicknamed him ‘Insurance’. George Boateng said whatever happened up the field, they knew they had Gareth behind them, ready to be used if needed, like an insurance policy.
He went from being a player in the May to the manager in June, so the dynamic had to change. He understood he couldn’t be their best mate, but the players knew he was of good character and he would treat them right.
One day, I took him to see some cricket – Durham v Sussex in Chester-le-Street. It was a low-scoring game and we sat in the Sussex dressing room, watching their batsmen waiting to go in.
He turned to me and said: “I admire these athletes, because they have too much thinking time. How must it feel to watch wickets fall, knowing that you’re next? That is so different to what footballers have to do.” He spoke to them, wanting to know how they coped with it. He never stopped asking questions, trying to learn. Not once did he talk about himself.
Gareth is brave. Not the physical bravery of leading your country into war, but the kind that means he will always front up.
In our last home game of the 2008-09 season, we had to beat Aston Villa otherwise it was pretty certain that we’d go down. We only drew 1-1. When the final whistle was greeted with boos and jeers, a lot of managers would have shaken hands then disappeared down the tunnel.
Gareth marched into the centre circle to applaud the fans. Even though he wasn’t being well received, he made sure he turned to all four corners of the ground. It was fight or flight and he never looked back.
‘The Marines link goes further than running through mud’
Southgate replaced Allardyce after one game of England’s World Cup qualifying campaign in the autumn of 2016. They secured their place in Russia in October 2017 with a game to spare but, since then, have changed their system. Assistant manager Steve Holland has been with Southgate throughout his tenure as England boss.
One of the the things he identified on taking the job was there was an issue on the back of the Iceland defeat and previous tournaments. I’d be fair in saying the sum of the mass didn’t quite balance between what it delivered. Why was that? Was it handling a pressure situation that left the players not delivering what they do for their clubs?
He has gone about trying to change that. We have a link with the Marines that is beyond climbing up trees and running through mud, but how these guys drop into other countries in the middle of the night and handle the pressure of if they are one step out of the plan, they get shot? They know what really is pressure, how to handle that, and we have learned from that.
In terms of watching England players in club football, I’m sure England staff in the past have been 100% committed, but it’s impossible that any of them have watched more matches than we have done this year. The same is possible, maybe, but not more.
If there’s an early kick-off and a late on Saturday, we’ll do two games. Regularly, there’s Tuesday and Wednesday in the Champions League, then Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Every Monday morning, after a weekend of fixtures, we’ll meet to discuss the games that we’ve watched.
We went to the Confederations Cup in the summer of 2017 and had the chance to discuss how England had been playing. We’d played a 4-2-3-1 formation in qualifying. We watched potential opponents – Germany played 3-4-3. We were looking at the opposition, trying to imagine where our team stood up against them.
We made some decisions that we felt would take the team to the next phase. We still had to qualify, so we didn’t want to bring those changes in too early. Once we qualified, we had a game to spare, and we used that game to play with three centre-halves. That is what we have done ever since.