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Gareth Southgate’s ruthless reign Don't be fooled by his vanilla demeanour

'Southgate has been an excellent England manager, the best since Alf Ramsey.' (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

'Southgate has been an excellent England manager, the best since Alf Ramsey.' (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)


June 14, 2024   6 mins

The strange thing about the build-up to these Euros for England is how settled everything feels. There is some doubt at left-back, but only because Luke Shaw’s fitness is uncertain, and there is debate over who should play alongside Declan Rice in midfield, but eight of the 11 players who will start against Serbia on Sunday are known, and nobody has any doubts about shape or style. That is not normal and it is testament to Gareth Southgate’s success since taking the job in 2016 — even if the injury to Harry Maguire and the friendly defeat to Iceland have exposed a new anthill of doubts.

Southgate’s contract expires in December, an enlightened piece of timing that means a decision on his future, whether he will lead England into the next World Cup, does not have to be taken in the emotionally heightened circumstances of the immediate aftermath of the Euros. The sense of stability is unprecedented in English football; the contrast to what is going on in British politics unavoidable. Barring something remarkable between now and the election on 4 July, Southgate will have been manager under five different prime ministers — and he missed David Cameron by only a couple of months. Even Alf Ramsey, who spent more than a decade in the job, only got through four. 

But perhaps the inversion makes sense as politics has become increasingly footballised. As Westminster has become characterised by hyper-partisanship, leaders playing to their base with outrageous claims and demands for a change at the top as a panacea to any ill, so the England manager has become increasingly statesmanlike. 

And yet, it is precisely because of Southgate’s achievements that there is pressure, precisely because he has been there for so long that there is some impatience. If England can’t win something now, then when will they ever break the drought that has endured since 1966? Since the 2018 World Cup, the narrative has shifted: Southgate is no longer the waistcoated magus, conjuring remarkable performances from an unexceptional squad; he is the dull bureaucrat holding back a generation of unprecedented creative talent. Perhaps a Keir Starmer parallel is a stretch, but sometimes the country just needs a refreshing dose of dullness.

“Southgate is no longer the waistcoated magus, conjuring remarkable performances from an unexceptional squad.”

The boring truth, as ever, lies somewhere between the two extremes. Southgate’s three unexceptional years in charge of Middlesbrough — which ended in relegation — would never have been enough to have made him a serious candidate for the England job in normal times. But in the context of Sam Allardyce having been forced out just 69 days after his arrival by the Telegraph’s underwhelming sting — which revealed nothing more than his willingness to accept huge sums of money to give speeches overseas and to offer advice to agents seeking to comply with the Premier League’s third-party contract regulations — England just needed somebody available and uncontroversial.

Southgate had been England’s Under-21 manager and was working with the FA on its various development programmes — making him at least partially responsible for the glut of attacking talent he is now supposedly restricting. He never sought the top job, rather it was thrust upon him. As he led England through qualification and then to the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup, there was a sense of him as a Richard Hannay figure, an accidental hero. Set against the chaotic backdrop of the Brexit negotiations, Southgate seemed an old-fashioned English hero, modest and decent in his waistcoat, his strength nothing flashy or extravagant but a quiet determination, backed up by dogged research. 

For the first time at a World Cup, England won a penalty shoot-out, the result of diligent practice and work with psychologists. Set-plays became a major weapon: again, something planned, but an unglamorous way of winning. The country was gripped by a strange euphoria. England had been dismal in every tournament since Euro 2004; this was the unleashing of a great pent-up patriotic wave.

Tournaments are deceptive spaces, their place in the popular consciousness far more down to their vibe than any actual detail. In the aftermath of their elimination by Iceland at Euro 2016 under Roy Hodgson and then his successor’s rapid departure after being caught on camera apparently drinking a pint of wine (Allardyce was obviously drinking water, but reputation sometimes skews the perspective), England were a laughing stock and so to reach the semi-final was a remarkable achievement.

But England did lose as many games as they had won in that tournament and the draw had been very kind. There was also a sense that the semi-final against Croatia represented an opportunity missed. England had gone 1-0 up and then had apparently frozen with the line in sight. Southgate had responded slowly to Croatia taking control of midfield. Both issues would be raised again at Euro 2020.

That competition really was a golden chance squandered. Again the draw was relatively gentle — even offering up a fading Germany for a cathartic 2-0 win. The tournament was spread across Europe but, because of differing Covid regulations, England ended up playing six of their seven games at Wembley. In the final against Italy, they went 1-0 up. But again England froze as their fingers closed on the prize and again Southgate was slow to react. 

Even then, they might have won on penalties. Southgate was meticulous. He had done more work on penalties than any previous England manager. He had ended the hoodoo. If Marcus Rashford’s penalty had gone three inches to the right, England would probably have won. But it hit the post and bounced to safety, then Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho missed. England had fumbled the opportunity again. 

This time, there was far less sympathy. This time, as the three players who had missed were subjected to racist abuse on social media, there was a reckoning, less of Southgate than of fan behaviour at the final. A day of heavy drinking, cocaine openly consumed on the street and a fan sticking a flare up his arse culminated in a surge on Wembley and several hundred fans getting in without tickets, and fighting on the concourses. The glee of 2018 had curdled.

Southgate had begun to lose support on the political Right because of his support of players taking the knee. Then, at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, he lost support from the Left because of his reluctance to be overly critical of the host nation.

But perhaps what is most striking is how calm he has remained discussing such subjects. He has never attacked the questioner, never sneered, never become flustered. He’s always been quite willing to discuss wider issues, when it would be very easy for him to insist that he’s just a football man. You don’t have to agree with everything he says to recognise a value in his tone, to wonder whether life mightn’t be better if more press conferences were conducted with similar consideration, thoughtfulness and graciousness.

In terms of the football, England played well in Qatar. They were more expansive than they had been at the Euros, seemingly more confident in their creative abilities. They lost in the quarter-final but in a close game against France that could have gone either way. Maguire headed against the post at one end then Olivier Giroud’s effort at the other flicked his head and flashed in. Harry Kane missed a penalty. Another referee might have decided Saka was fouled in the build-up to France’s opener. 

Perhaps Kane’s miss from the spot eight minutes from time was a result of anxiety but this was a different quality of exit; there was no real sense of a chance wasted, just two good teams going at each other and the margins favouring France. To an extent, it was a measure of how far Southgate had brought the side that England went into a game against the reigning world champions as their near equals. And yet, the nagging thought remained that England always lose when they face good sides; it’s a thought that is not entirely explained by the fact that few teams look particularly good once you’ve beaten them.

And so Southgate goes again, into a fourth tournament. There is real expectation. Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy, possibly the Netherlands and Belgium all look dangerous, but England and France have the best squads. Southgate’s selection has prompted talk of his ruthlessness in leaving out Marcus Rashford, Jordan Henderson, James Maddison and Jack Grelaish, as though this was a new decisiveness.

The truth is he has always been ruthless, as Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney discovered when they were left out of the squad for Russia in 2018. Southgate has always been his own man, ignoring the clamour for certain players and claims he is over-loyal, never afraid to dispose of a player if necessary; it’s just that his air of reasonableness means it often goes unnoticed. He said very early on in his reign that he wanted to stand or fall on his own terms and to that ideal he has remained true.

He has been an excellent England manager, the best since Alf Ramsey, who also battled constant accusations of overcaution. If he could only react quicker to in-game problems and get his players to lose their fear of success, he might actually win something.


Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian, the editor of the Blizzard, the co-host of the podcast It Was What It Was and author of 12 books on football history and one novel.

jonawils

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Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
1 month ago

Woke corporate Yes man. The footballing equivalent of Rishi Sunak. Quarter final exit.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago

You can tell just how good the current England players are, as they got to a major final – despite this woke-obsessed amateur trying to stop them attacking.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago

Good Lord, the author is actually serious, I thought this was some kind of satire.
How settled things feel? Maybe he didn’t notice the miserable defeat to Iceland in the last match?
Or how the utterly milquetoast Southgate is incapable of getting the best out of individuals such as Foden, Bellingham and Saka.
How it feels is unchanged – England have an exceptional squad led by a man with plenty of knowledge but distinctly lacking wisdom and application.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 month ago
Reply to  Robbie K

There is the odd time I completely agree with you. This happens to be one of those times.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago

Good article, the last sentence is telling. For the Euro 2020 final, Italy made a couple of substitutions around the 55″ minute mark while Southgate introduced Bukayo Saka relatively late into the game (70″). Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were brought on AFTER extra time for the penalty shoot out, this would have placed an extra burden on these players in my opinion. Southgate may well have asked them if they were confident to carry this out, they were unlikely to say no to him.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Brought on to win it for Diversity. The George Floyd Euros

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

The thinking might have been, imagine those players scoring the winners in a penalty shootout of a finals tournament at Wembley. If so, it was monumentally ill-judged. They should have been brought on earlier.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew R

I suspect you meant “monumentally”, but were auto-corrected by the thought bot.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Yes, laziness on my part. I’ll edit it. Thanks.

Adam K
Adam K
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Yes, if England win it, it will be flagrantly weaponised against whites. The England team is a front in the culture war. It is used to push the anyone can be English and or ethnicity doesn’t matter if you’re white narrative.

John Tumilty
John Tumilty
1 month ago

“He has been an excellent England manager, the best since Alf Ramsey, who also battled constant accusations of overcaution.”
That’s just not true. Bobby Robson and Terry Venables were both far better than him.
I do think that Southgate rescued the England team in many ways from a culture of cliques and deserves credit for that. But he is not a top class manager.
He lost the semi-final and final because he has not managed at the highest level.
Over the years I have seen England managers make bizarre squad and team selections. Leaving out Jack Grealish ranks right up there. Good managers get the best out of talented players, they do not leave them at home.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

I’d agree with that assessment of Southgate’s relative standing behind Robson and Venables. I suspect Grealish was omitted because his form dropped off a cliff with City after he was burgled, and was consistently left on the sidelines there during the latter half of the season by Guardiola. Similarily with Rashford, who no longer has the focus required at the very highest level.

A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

Terry Venables was a goon – like Glenn Hoddle he essentially threw every tournament that England competed in by not putting Matt Le Tissier first on the team sheet and working back from there.

John Tumilty
John Tumilty
1 month ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I see your Matt Le Tissier and raise you a Paul Gascoigne

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 month ago
Reply to  John Tumilty

I would say that Glenn Hoddle and Sven Goran Eriksson were better than Southgate too.

Adam K
Adam K
1 month ago

It’s not easy to support the England team now given the conspicuous absence of English players. International football is a charade nowadays.

JOHN KANEFSKY
JOHN KANEFSKY
1 month ago

Having supported and watched England for over 60 years, I have to say I no longer care greatly how the team do, and some players and their clubs seem to take the same view.
And I don’t bother to watch our friendlies, I have some paint I need to watch drying.
Ditto the Premier League, it’s all about the money nowadays. I now only really get excited about my local League 1 team.

William Goodwin
William Goodwin
1 month ago
Reply to  JOHN KANEFSKY

Yes, it was the money wot done it; that and the insistence (some would say cowardice) of the FA in always wanting someone whose premier characteristics are a) not to take risks on the pitch and b) not to rock the boat. Which is, of course, why we never got the likes of Clough, Redknapp or other serial outspoken winners as England manager. And like many others, I’ve retreated to the riskier, more entertaining milieu of my local EFL club.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 month ago

Southgate’s significant achievement was forming a cohesive squad again after a decade or two of club cliques and misery. Getting to the semi final of the 2018 world cup at a point when there was fairly low expectations around the national side was also an achievement of sorts. However, England faced only two good opponents, losing to each (Belgium twice if including the 3rd place play off).
This began his run of extremely fortuitous draws. England’s only real scalp in a major tournament being German in the previous Euros – probably the worst German side in my lifetime.
Failing to beat Italy in a home final with effectively a one goal start was a bottle job of enormous proportions. Bringing Rashford and Sakha in the last seconds to take penalties was ridiculous – particularly when considering two players with pace to burn and an ageing Italian backline – this either forces Italy back or gives the opportunity to win on the counter.

A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Absolutely right – he’s been massively lucky with the draws. I thought the big mistake vs Italy was taking Rice off – at the time the only player who looked to pass the ball forward (he said he felt fine at the time).

To be fair to him, France could have gone either way – but again he bewilderingly took Saka off – he should have been all over the ref in that game for all the fouling Saka in particular received. There’s a downside for being calm and nice.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

“Southgate’s significant achievement was forming a cohesive squad again after a decade or two of club cliques and misery.”

This is the key point about Southgate – he gave England a team spirit and that is why we’ve gone further in tournaments than we have for a while. The only other times England played as a team in my memory were 90 and 96 and that likely had more to do with Gascoigne than the managers.

Sadly he is let down by his tactical caution and slowness during a match. And his failure to overcome the perennial problem of England nervously retreating when they get a goal ahead against a big side.

Adam K
Adam K
1 month ago

There is a good piece here about how England football teams are seen as a front for the left in the culture war. https://theheritagesite.substack.com/p/english-triumph-and-leftist-lament

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago

We have some of the very best creative six midfielders in Europe. Jude. Palmer. Eze. Trent. And more. Has Southgate ever played a top three or four together? No. Have we found the ideal line up in midfield and attack and had them play together in the last 2 years?? No. We start from scratch in tournament. Southgate has failed to prep a top team and remains a blind frozen rabbit when oppos change tactics in game. Tragic.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
1 month ago

Southgate must learn to react quicker when the game is turning against England.
The lost at home to Italy in the last Euro final (an Italy that has repeatedly failed to qualify for a World Cup by the way) was a serious lose of nerve and tactical judgement.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago

France has the best squad. England’s isn’t noticeably better than Germany’s, Portugal, or Spain’s, and due to injuries looks fairly wobbly in defence.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

I don’t think leaving Joe Hart out in 2018 was ‘ruthless’ given how Guardiola had highlighted his weaknesses.

J Boyd
J Boyd
1 month ago

England should have beaten Italy in 2020: Southgate opted to defend when they went 1-0 up which was catastrophic and brought on 3 kids who he hadn’t trusted to play in 90 minutes or extra time to take penalties. That was absurd (and cruel).
He is hugely overrated as will become apparent when he returns to club management.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  J Boyd

A lot of people think it was tactics to play defensive after going a goal up but I don’t think it was. England have done that in big games my entire life (with a couple of exceptions). It was just very noticeable against Italy because we went ahead so early.

The penalty subs were silly though.