Where to start? After 55 years England have made it to a Final. I was alive when we last did it but have a very sketchy recollection of watching the game at home with my parents and elder brother on our black-and-white television. My abiding memory was going to see the official FIFA film “Goal!”, which was released in cinemas shortly afterwards, and being blown away by the colours – the red shirts, the green turf, the orange ball. It has always intrigued me why an orange ball was used in late July, were we expecting snow?
Almost six decades later England are back at Wembley for a Final and one of the main reasons we have reached this point is the skilled management of Gareth Southgate. Four years ago I wrote this piece for the Guardian about Southgate’s formative years as a player at Palace – http://bit.ly/2mxw56g. In this piece, there are a couple of pointers as to why he was destined to be a top manager. The combination of intelligence, willingness to learn and a steely resolve stood him in good stead to make the grade.
Southgate joined Palace in 1988 and immediately impressed Bob White, who was head of the Palace youth set-up. “When he joined Palace on associate schoolboy forms, it was obvious that we had signed an intelligent lad and footballer,” White says. “He was always a popular young player and someone who others looked up to and respected, so it was a natural progression to becoming captain of our youth team.” From those early days White knew Southgate would be a success in the game. To earn respect in a dressing room, which had a fair few dominant personalities, such as Ian Wright and Andy Gray, was no mean feat and he was certainly no shrinking violet.
Southgate has shown this trait in his managerial career with England, it is clear that the players have the utmost respect for him as do the media, which is something you could not say that many of his predecessors achieved. He has generated an unparalleled sense of unity as there is no sign of dissension in the ranks and it is noteworthy that on quite a few occasions during this tournament Southgate’s first move at the full time whistle is to turn to the bench and engage with those who have not been involved on the pitch. Such harmony is not easily earned.
Palace’s captain before Southgate broke into the first team was Geoff Thomas who recognised Southgate’s keenness to absorb ideas allied with his innate sense of responsibility “Gareth was like a sponge when he was younger,” Thomas says. “He took everything in and he was also such a nice guy. Nobody would have had a bad word to say about him. He had leadership qualities from the outset and was never afraid to speak out when things were going wrong – even with the senior players. He was always way ahead of his years in taking on responsibility, even to the extent of keeping all of us in check sometimes.”
Southgate clearly does not suffer fools gladly as he showed when Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood broke the quarantine rules when on international duty in Iceland. The punishment was swift and decisive as both were immediately sent home and dropped from the next squad. Also this group of players have shown they understand their sense of responsibility through their actions, for example by donating their bonuses from the Euros to good causes. This is no public relations exercise either as players such as Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire have been heavily involved with the NHS Charities Together.
Even those outside the England camp appreciate the positive impact Southgate has had, as Danish manager Kasper Hjulmand graciously acknowledged in the wake of Wednesday’s defeat. “I want to congratulate my colleague Gareth. I followed what the FA has done and how he works with the young players, gets involved and how he behaves with the values he has. How he represents and communicates is outstanding. Congratulations Gareth you are doing a great job in a difficult job.”
One of his former managers from his playing days is one of his biggest advocates. Alan Smith was part of the coaching set-up at Palace from the early 1980s and when he became manager in 1993, after relegation in the first Premier League season, he made Southgate captain. Palace won the Division One title under their leadership and Smith emphasises his formidable strength of character. “Out of all the people I have met in my life, he’s up there for straightness,” Smith says. “He’s just a decent bloke both off and on the field. But I get annoyed when people say he’s a bit soft as you don’t get to where he has, captaining three Premier League clubs and representing your country so many times, by being soft.”
There is so much to admire in Southgate’s approach and there is a great deal more to his management style than the inflatable unicorns and the waistcoats. I am not generally a fan of open letters as they tend towards bland generalisation but Southgate’s one to the fans on the eve of the Euros was a notable exception. He did not shy away from the difficult issues and indeed addressed them in manner that puts the majority of politicians to shame. In emphasising togetherness and inclusivity rather than the division and exclusivity that is the forte of our current leaders, Southgate instils the right sort of national pride.
“Regardless of your upbringing and politics,” Southgate said. “What is clear is that we are an incredible nation — relative to our size and population — that has contributed so much to the arts, science and sport. We do have a special identity and that remains a powerful motivator. In a funny way, I see the same Englishness represented by the fans who protested against the Super League. We are independent thinkers. We speak out on the issues that matter to us and we are proud of that.”