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Good guy Gareth has his three lions purring

Good guy Gareth has his three lions purring

FOOTBALL: The last time England made a European Championship semi-final was 25 years ago. As many of us will sorely remember, it ended in heartache after a penalty shootout loss to arch rivals Germany. The man who missed the crucial kick for England was one Gareth Southgate.

By Ben Tirebuck

Saturday 10 July 2021, 03:35PM

Pointing the way forward: England manager Gareth Southgate. Photo: AFP

Pointing the way forward: England manager Gareth Southgate. Photo: AFP

Back to the present day and Southgate is, of course, now manager of the national team. He has overseen a very successful Euro 2020 tournament for the three lions so far, creating history with the valiant semi-final victory against Denmark last Wednesday and now prepares them for their first ever Euros final appearance against Italy tomorrow (July 11).

To reach the final is a great achievement and demonstrates clear progress has been made since the World Cup semi-final heartache against Crotia in 2018. England may well win tomorrow although the Azzurri will be their toughest test of the tournament yet, without any doubt.

The work Southgate has done during his five-year tenure thus far has been impressive to say the least and, reagrdless of the outcome tomorrow, he will emerge very much as a winner.

He has done much to positively impact not just performances on the pitch but by influencing things off it equally well, reshaping the entire structure of the national set up, redefining the culture and the way in which the team is perceived by those on the outside.

Southgate is a mature, honest, compassionate and articulate man who has shone in his ambassadorial role as national team manager. He has acknowledged the importance and inluence his role plays in a broader perspective by tackling pertinent social issues such as Brexit, racism, gender equality and inclusion head-on in a measured and sensitive manner. “I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold,” he has said.

He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2019 and agreed to take a 30% cut in his salary when the COVID-19 pandemic set in. The public letter “Dear England” that he penned going into the tournament was an eloquent, touching soliloquy that detailed the pride and responsibility he and his players feel representing their country. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to.

Empathy and compassion

Southgate is clearly not the stereotypical football manager. Winning, of course, is always the goal but that does not mean good values and decency need be compromised. One lingering memory from when he guided the team to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018 was him consoling a distraught Colombian player who missed the crucial penalty in the shootout loss to England. Southgate knew exactly how it felt and demonstrated empathy and compassion in his actions which spoke volumes of him as a human being and ended up being one of the defining images of the tournament. This coming immediately after his team had created history by winning a penalty shootout in a tournament for the first time since 1996. Sure, he celebrated but was quick to find time to offer his support to a fellow human who he knew was going to go through tough times. A class act.

Clearly he is one of the good guys. He exerts a calm yet confident demeanour at all times and has been very purposeful in creating a comfortable, clique-free environment for his players which has allowed them to perform and shine.

Southgate treats his players as adults and fosters a notion of trust that is implicit and that has created the atmosphere of a close-knit club. Players regularly give glowing accounts of their time with the national team, suggesting it is something they want to be part of as opposed to being compelled – a criticism levelled at previous camps that were often regarded as more of a chore.

“I like players to have responsibility; to think about what we are asking them to do, to have an opinion on the way we are asking them to play and the way we are asking them to train,” explains Southgate.

He’s one of us’

Relations with the press, which were often so toxic under previous managers, have also blossomed under Southgate’s time in charge. He was at the sharp point of criticism and ridicule by the infamously brutal British media after his penalty miss against the Germans in 1996, something that stuck for a long time and clearly hurt him.

Perhaps reacting to that personal experience, Southgate was astute enough to realise the power of the media and that everyone pulling in the same direction was a better dynamic than division. By welcoming the press to open days where players were accessible in a relaxed environment, Southgate very cleverly created a domain of inclusivity and unity that has benefited all.

Gone are the days of animosity, of suspicion and conflict. One would not be surprised to hear an English hack quoting the character Henry Hill from the classic film Goodfellas: “You’re gonna like this guy, he’s all right. He’s a goodfella. He’s one of us,” in reference to the England coach.

Southgate’s tactical acumen, arguably what he is ultimately judged on, has largely been superb during his tenure. He continually demonstrates an awareness and ability to switch personnel, formation and tactics depending on the opponents, positioning his team in an optimal space to succeed.

Many criticised his team selection as too negative prior to the Euro knockout game against Germany on June 29, yet it transpired to be a masterclass as England stifled their arch rivals in a 2-0 victory. He did likewise in the Denmark semi-final victory. A small section of people continue to criticise and complain but that is just because some people are designed that way and will always criticise and complain, no matter what. Southgate has an abundance of attacking talent at his disposal that many people have demanded get more game time yet has managed to strike the right balance that is generating positive results and progress. “In Gareth we trust” is becoming a mantra increasingly adopted.

A wonderful privilege’

The impact England’s Euro journey has had on the entire nation cannot be understated and illustrates exactly how powerful sport can be. It has unified a country that has become increasingly divided and hostile in recent times, ravaged by the likes of the Brexit fallout and, of course, COVID-19. After close to 18-months of the pandemic wreaking havoc, tragically claiming lives and changing the way we think and operate, something positive was desperately needed.

COVID is still prevalent but to once again see people of all ages, gender and race genuinely happy, celebrating in unity and as part of a positive momentum has been not only most welcome but critically important. It has raised the spirits of a nation when it was most needed, converted non-football fans into believers and given reason to smile and feel good once again.

“I know it is important for the country at the moment because I know we can make people’s lives happier,” Southgate said in a recent interview with AP. “It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to make a difference.”

Maybe the recent win against the Germans brought a hint of revenge for the heartache Southgate endured 25 years previous although he is not a man to be hung up on regret or sentiment. He is only focused on driving forward, improving everything he has control over.

“I talked to the players about the legacy bits they have achieved… but now they have a choice of what colour medal [they win],” said Southgate in the build-up to the final.

“And that is what it is all about because it won’t be enough for me and for the rest of the staff and for the players if we don’t win it now.”

Regardless of the outcome of Euro 2020, whether “football comes home” or not, the health of the English national team has rarely been better. Much, if not all, of this is down to the modern gentleman of the game, one Gareth Southgate OBE.

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