He jokingly calls himself the ‘numpty in charge’. Now can Southgate prove he’s the real deal?

England coach about to embark on a journey which will decide his fate




dmg media (UK)


World Cup 2022

GARETH SOUTHGATE puts it best. ‘I know there’ll be people on social media saying, “Blimey, we’ve got all these good players and this numpty’s in charge”. So you’ve got to keep proving yourself.’ Indeed you do. One more time, Gareth. If medals were handed out for self-awareness, Southgate could be confident of being top of the podium here in Qatar. Twitter and the man in the pub — and it is mostly angry men who coalesce around this view — have decided that they never liked his waistcoat anyway and that he is the man who cost us OUR trophy at Euro 2020. You can tell them he’s the best England manager since 1966, but Southgate’s words, from a podcast interview he did with Jake Humphrey, resonate. For them he will for ever be a numpty. And that’s the printable version of their verdict. The angry men with an overdeveloped sense of national entitlement might be surprised at how close they came to getting their way. When England lost 4-0 at Molineux to Hungary last summer, a cacophony of boos greeted the final whistle from those who had bothered to stay. It was a truly awful performance. And something Southgate said recently indicated just how hard that result hit him. After more boos, when the team lost to Italy in Milan in September, Southgate was discussing the problematic wider mood with a small group of journalists. Asked about the jeers and the state of the national team, he replied: ‘Look, I think that’s currently where it is and I have to accept that. I think I’m the right person to take the team into the tournament. I think it’s more stable that way without a doubt.’ No one had actually asked if he was leaving as no one assumed this was viable two months before the World Cup. Southgate’s answer suggested it was a proposition he had been debating over the summer. For a couple of weeks after that Molineux defeat he was very low; it seems there was a dark night of the soul. You wonder if he too was wrestling with the thought that has hung over this team ever since Luke Shaw scored in the second minute of the Euro 2020 final? Was that the peak Southgate moment, 88 minutes from glory with England on the front foot, playing at Wembley in front of an impassioned crowd? It feels like backward steps ever since, or at least a retreat from the thrilling opening 20 minutes in that final, when England were swaggering to their first major trophy since 1966. There was a literal retreat into a back five, the surrendering of the midfield to Italy, the uninspired second half and extra time, the penalty misses which were more depressing for the racist abuse they unleashed than the actual defeat. Southgate and his team felt it, as England received their silver medals to an empty stadium, with only the Italy fans and players’ families there, the latter having been trampled and scared witless by the feral violence and mayhem that preceded the game. The fall-out from a night of hooliganism and racism meant something potentially glorious soured. Southgate’s England, a beacon for decent patriotism, was seemingly overwhelmed by the forces of toxic nationalism and anarchic hooliganism, though he would argue that the outpouring of love and outrage of behalf of Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho indicated the decent England in which he believes. He lifted the squad pretty quickly after that, asking them, when they reconvened in September 2021, whether that was it for England now or did they have the desire to go again. They responded with a 4-0 win in Hungary. But that dismal Nations League run in the summer meant the cloud of negativity soon returned to block out the light. Since then he has seemed pretty upbeat. It was as if he had resolved something in his mind. Whatever the England job was to be for him — and he is under no illusions that it can be very messy — he would enjoy it come what may. He knows that like boxers, England managers tend to end their careers with their face battered and bloodied. ‘I’ve seen every other England manager have it so I wasn’t and never have been carried away by praise,’ he said. On Wednesday, England undertook their first training session here in Doha. As they warmed up, from all around the stadium came the cry, in Arabic, of ‘Allahu Akbar! God is Great! God I bear witness that there is no god except the One God! I bear witness that Muhammad moment that, after all the talk since 2010 of human rights, corruption and geopolitics, the reality struck home we are here in Qatar, a nation of just 300,000 indigenous inhabitants, in November for a World Cup. And it is on this most atypical of World Cups that Southgate will be judged. The progress he has made with England can be measured not just in terms of those semi-finals and final reached but in the culture he has created. You were reminded of that when a member of Liverpool’s staff during the golden generation years recalled the mood at the club in the build-up to international weeks 15 years ago. ‘Back then, the Spaniards, like Xabi (Alonso) and Fernando (Torres) would be bouncing all week [before internationals]. They were going to see their friends. The English lads looked sour-faced and miserable, like it was a grind.’ An agent contrasted that with the mood now. ‘The England lads look forward to joining up now. They’re going to see their mates. In the past, it was like they were meeting up with enemies, with the Manchester United crew, the Liverpool crew and the Chelsea crew. Even the players from other teams had to avoid identifying too closely with any of those groups in case they were seen as being in that camp.’ Only once has that dynamic threatened the Southgate camp, when Sterling squared up to Joe Gomez the day after a Liverpool Manchester City clash in 2019. Sterling was dropped for the next game and many predicted Southgate would lose his respect and commitment to the team. England’s best player at Euro 2020? Sterling. This is entirely Southgate’s doing. Kyle Walker, first called up in 2011 by Roy Hodgson, recalled how different it was then. ‘When I came in no one spoke a word to you. You’d eat your food, train, then go back to your bedroom.’ Walker, Jordan Henderson, Conor Coady and Sterling all ensure that is no longer the case. The question for Southgate, as he takes on Iran tomorrow, is whether team spirit alone will be enough to get them over the line. In-game management has been Southgate’s weakness. He himself would point to the fact he has managed only 200 games. It is less than four seasons’ worth in club football. He knows he will need to learn quickly to regain the popularity he once enjoyed. On that sweaty night 17 months ago at Wembley, prior to the Euro 2020 final, the pre-match DJ played Atomic Kitten’s You Still Turn Me On. And 60,000 fans — in reality, on that night of chaos, it was more like 75,000 — chorused: ‘Southgate you’re the one! You still turn me on! Football’s coming home tonight!’ Less than a year later it was: ‘You don’t know what you’re doing!’ and ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning!’ It comes to them all in the end. Sir Alf Ramsey’s contract was terminated by press release in 1974 and Paul Hayward’s book, England Football: The Biography, records that his wife, Lady Ramsey, said: ‘I really do think it broke him. He was never the same man afterwards and I do feel it contributed to the ill-health he suffered.’ If it turned that sour for the actual hero of ’66, how badly could it go wrong for Southgate? Tomorrow we shall begin to find out which way his fate will fall.