PEOPLE have been mistaking Gareth Southgate for a cross between a kindly PE teacher and a Guardian columnist since well before he took the England job.
And on the eve of the biggest match of his life, the Three Lions boss again spoke passionately about his vision of a diverse and inclusive modern England.
Gareth Southgate has urged England to draw on past courage against ItalyCredit: The Sun
The Three Lions boss has guided the country into their first final in 55 yearsCredit: Reuters
Southgate keeps his steelier side well hidden and he admits that few people wanted him to get the England job in 2016 because he was seen as a safe-pair-of-hands ‘FA man’.
But before Sunday’s final against Italy, there was a moment when Southgate let his mask slip and we saw the fierce competitor who played 57 internationals at centre-half and captained three Premier League clubs.
Southgate clearly hasn’t guided England into their first final in 55 years, merely by being – in his own words – ‘cuddly’.
After being asked about the experience of missing a penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final defeat, Southgate said: “There’s a really fine balance now, because we know young people need support and we’ve got to treat them in certain ways.
“But if you’re trying to achieve extraordinary things, which our players are, then you’re into an environment that is a lot more hostile, and it can’t always be supportive.
“You’ve got to play in front of 90,000 people, and you’re in the colosseum and it’s the thumbs up or the thumbs down, and that can’t always be a cuddly, warm environment.
“So you’ve got to develop resilience, but those experiences (like the penalty miss) can help shape you if you respond to them in the right way.”
So you’ve got to develop resilience, but those experiences (like the penalty miss) can help shape you if you respond to them in the right way
Asked what England meant to him, Southgate then surprised us by claiming that the fervent atmosphere inside Wembley for the historic last-16 victory over Germany, was partly inspired by the Second World War.
Those of us working on red-top newspapers stopped mentioning the war a quarter of a century ago – but here was the England manager getting all ‘we will never surrender’ on us.
Southgate spoke of great English inventors and traditions of decency.
But then he added: “Also people have tried to invade us and we’ve had the courage to hold that back.
“You can’t hide that some of the energy in the stadium against Germany was because of that. I never mentioned that to the players, but I know that’s part of what that story was.
“And for an island our size we’ve got an incredible influence on the world and we’ve got to keep that in a positive way.”
After excellent performances at two major tournaments, it is always worth remembering that Southgate is an accidental England manager.
He turned down the chance to step in as caretaker boss after Roy Hodgson quit in the wake of Euro 2016 humiliation by Iceland, then reluctantly took that role following the one-match reign of Sam Allardyce.
And Southgate is aware that his stepping up from the Under-21s job was not greeted with enthusiasm.
When it was put to him that he didn’t really want the job, Southgate agreed: “No, because I knew that when we have had difficult tournaments as a country, the FA come under scrutiny, so there is not going to be any enthusiasm for an FA man getting the job and I know people saw me as an ‘FA man’.
“I don’t mind that, by the way, because I think what the FA actually stand for – from grassroots football upwards, then if that’s what being an FA man is, then I’m happy to be accused of it.”
I think what the FA actually stand for – from grassroots football upwards, then if that’s what being an FA man is, then I’m happy to be accused of it
Southgate has grown into this unique multi-faceted job – succeeding as a statesman but admitting that none of his words about wider society would have any impact if his team didn’t win football matches.
He said: “There are things that have helped me – having played for England and lived through tournaments and been able to experience what the role has looked like for other managers.
“But there are so many other facets to the job. Today there were messages with opportunities to help charity projects.
“So there’s the influence you can have in those areas, the leadership aspect which I know is important for the country at the moment because I know we can make people’s lives happier.
“But then we’ve got to get the game tactically right because although there is great pride in what we are doing and people are speaking really nicely about us, the professional in you knows the tactical role has to be spot on.
“We’re playing a team that hasn’t lost in 33 games. So the need in this role to flip in 20 minutes – meetings I have that go from intense tactical discussions to something about junior teams to the NHS – I think that’s unique.
“The big clubs have massive scrutiny but we’re always the biggest show in town when we play – so in those moments we’re even higher than our biggest clubs.
“It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to make a difference. But it’s no use being able to speak about other areas of society, if we don’t get the tactical bit right, the selections right, if we don’t manage the players the right way, the house falls down.
“I know now this is a lovely period in many ways but we’ve got to get Sunday right.”
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