It was a year ago this week, ahead of England’s 1,000th men’s international, that Gareth Southgate discussed his initial reticence to take the England job back in November 2016.
“I felt that, in more recent times, the job had been viewed as this poisoned chalice,” he explained. “I thought about whether I would want the role. You started to think of the negative parts that came with it, which were so high profile for quite a few recent managers. But then you start to think about what those people achieved. And they’re the things that, as a leader, you’ve got to inspire in others and unless you’re feeling that way yourself, you can’t do that.”
Few managers went into the England job with a more acute understanding of what the role entails than when Southgate was named permanent boss. Equally, the circumstances in which he assumed control perfectly en capsulated the maelstrom that perpetually surrounds any England manager.
The first three years of his tenure saw Southgate largely steer clear of such troubled waters, rebuilding England’s identity and confidence as they reached their first World Cup semifinal for 28 years in 2018 and followed up with a third-place finish at the inaugural UEFA Nations League finals. But since that 1,000th game, against Montenegro almost exactly 12 months ago, Southgate has had to navigate a way through an increasing number of controversies, crises and dramas that could for the first time be chipping away at the 50-year-old’s resolve to continue in one of the toughest jobs in football.
An England manager has to be a coach, a leader and a diplomat. And most importantly, they have to win, sating a national obsession dating back to England’s only tournament success, the 1966 World Cup.
Former Three Lions boss Fabio Capello once described the country’s continual references to that triumph as “the returning ghost, this never-ending ’66” and it’s haunted so many. Southgate is the 13th England manager, since Sir Alf Ramsey left the job in 1974, to try to add a second major trophy while dodging traps and pitfalls at every turn.
“As founding fathers [of the sport], we regard ourselves as custodians of the game: there’s an element of that,” said Roy Hodgson, who managed England between 2012 and 2016. And so it is a testament to the work Southgate did upon taking charge that he was able to concentrate on football for so long.
Arguably Southgate’s greatest achievement has been in altering England’s relationship with its footballing past, impressing upon this generation why they can take inspiration from history rather than feeling unduly constrained by it.
The chaos created by England’s embarrassing exit to Iceland in 2016 and Sam Allardyce’s indiscretion enabled Southgate to operate in a rare environment of low expectations, surpassing all pre-tournament predictions in Russia 2018 and then underlining their resurgence with a strong Nations League campaign, which included beating Spain in Seville and avenging their World Cup defeat to Croatia.
Nevertheless, it was still a period when Southgate’s ambassadorial acuity was called upon, albeit to issues beyond his purview. Southgate showed remarkable fortitude in negotiating tensions between England and Russia, proving adept at navigating minefields located far away from the football pitch. He was equally proficient with the one closer to it as racist abuse from fans in Montenegro and again in Bulgaria marred wins in March and then October last year.
Sources have told ESPN that Southgate felt deeply concerned that he hadn’t protected his players sufficiently in Podgorica, and so when his players were abused again in Sofia six months later, no stone was left unturned by the FA regarding protocol and response.
Southgate’s conduct — and that of his players — was exemplary, so much so that it seemed he was somehow impervious to any incarnation of the off-field trials and tribulations that had tripped up his predecessors. There still has not been a misstep but the effort required to navigate these issues may be taking its toll.
It began in the St George’s Park canteen, of all places. Just days after a stormy encounter between Manchester City and Liverpool, Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez continued a disagreement that started as opponents but continued as teammates as the pair joined up for international duty.
Gomez has a scar underneath his right eye from a fracas that marked the first challenge to the unity and togetherness Southgate has fostered. Sterling was dropped, and Gomez was booed by a small section of supporters as England thrashed Montenegro 7-0 in their 1,000th men’s international.
The entire camp was consequently overshadowed, and arguably so has every single one since. Since the March and June fixtures were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the list of unforeseen issues for Southgate is head spinning.
In chronological order: Harry Maguire’s sentencing in Greece; Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood breaking COVID-19 protocols by inviting women back to the team hotel in Iceland; Kieran Trippier missing a match because of an FA hearing into alleged betting rule breaches; Jadon Sancho, Ben Chilwell and Tammy Abraham breaking the government’s COVID-19 “rule of six” by attending a party for the latter’s 23rd birthday; Wednesday’s Iceland game being in doubt due to a sudden change in UK government rules regarding possible mutant strain of Covid-19; Gomez breaking down in training; FA chairman Greg Clarke’s resignation; and accusations of improper conduct over Southgate’s own positive coronavirus test.
It is an exhausting set of challenges — for which Southgate is admittedly well remunerated at around £3 million a year, prior to accepting a 30% COVID-related cut in April — and so there have perhaps inevitably been signs of wear and tear in recent months.
Southgate remains generous with his time, cordial, thoughtful and erudite in media engagements, a continuation of the policy to break down the barrier between team and press pack that had formed so rigidly under previous managers. However, his consternation at the sheer volume and scope of issues thrown his way has been evident of late, in keeping with someone who once declared he was “involved in a sport that I love and an industry that at times I don’t like.”
He largely shuns the limelight when club football dominates, preferring to retreat to his Elizabethan manor in a quiet part of North Yorkshire, the company of his wife of 23 years, Alison, and two daughters rather than prolonging his time in the media circus.
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So, is he still enjoying it?
“It is an unprecedented — I know it’s a word that has had unprecedented use in the last six months — but it is a unique situation that we are all living in,” Southgate told ESPN on Tuesday. “So everybody in the world is having to deal with a different level of uncertainty, focus on rule breaches, all the events surrounding the virus. I think everybody has experienced that — every business, every manager, every leader. Yes, it has been challenging. In any job, you are going to have moments where things are going very well, the momentum is with you and there is a better feeling about you as a manager.
“And you are going to have moments where you are questioned, you are challenged, you get a few things going against you and you have to fight through those moments. You have to keep strong, maintain focus and make sure you are focusing on the right things. If you are going to be in a big job that people have interest in, that’s the landscape. If you are not interested in that, go somewhere else.”
An answer, perhaps, more interesting for what he didn’t say that what he did. Does he still feel the same way about the job as he did when he took it on?
“I came into this job with eyes wide open,” he said. “I’ve lived through watching Graham Taylor, Bobby Robson, Kevin Keegan, what they went through on a personal level, the abuse they suffered, the questions they faced. But also, I’ve seen when Bobby got the team to a World Cup semifinal, what an incredible high that was for the country. I played in ’96 when we got to the only European Championship semifinal that we’ve been to and what an amazing feeling that was.
“So you’ve got to focus on what it could be rather than the difficult parts. That’s going to come with any job. Every job of work has days where it’s hard, you know, and you’ve got to dig in. Not every day at work is going to be huge fun and everything going in your favour. It is the moments where you learn the most about yourself and about everything else.
“They are character forming and areas where you improve, really. It is easier to manage when everything is going quite smoothly. When you keep getting all these curveballs that we have had, that’s of course extremely complicated, but you have got to find a way through it and you’ll be better for the experience.”
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Southgate previously admitted a note of caution had even crept into his team selection in Copenhagen back in September because of added scrutiny resulting from the Foden-Greenwood affair a few days earlier. He played an extra midfielder against Denmark — a drab 0-0 draw — because he was wary of the atmosphere around the team that would have arisen from a defeat and admitted a month later that the Foden-Greenwood incident had contributed to a “circus” that could “derail” England at a major tournament.
The early alarm bells are ringing.
So where does this leave Southgate? He has a contract until 2022 and there’s no suggestion at this stage that he would walk away. In a further measure of the man, sources have told ESPN that several FA staff would consider leaving their positions whenever Southgate does choose to step down, such are the myriad close bonds he has forged during his time at the organisation. He would, one day, make an excellent chairman.
But if the history of England managers tells us anything, it is that nobody chooses the timing of their own departure. Results will ultimately determine whether Southgate remains in charge and he is a victim of his own success in the context of heightened expectations around England’s chances at a delayed Euro 2020 next summer.
That is why he has not been immune to criticism of England’s performances of late as they failed to qualify for the Nations League finals and have gone from a goal-crazy 4-3-3 to a more conservative 3-4-3. Yet even if questions are growing about his tactical approach for the first time, you suspect Southgate would still rather talk about the football after the year he’s had to contend with.