I love Gareth Southgate. Truly and deeply. And not because he dresses sharply, although that helps. And not because he seems like a caring, balanced guy, which is also a plus. I love him because he wins. I love him because he has turned around English football in a way that continues to be underestimated and verges on the miraculous. Ahead of tomorrow’s England v France quarter-final, in which France have to be the favourites, I think he’s the best manager England have ever had. Better than Sir Ralph, or Bobby Robson. The reason I believe that to be the case has a lot to do with what he inherited; the state of England when he took the reins, and what the previous decade of English football had been like.
I bring all this up mostly because there is a section of English football fans who seem to love to hate Southgate, or at the very least, do him down all the time. This seems to mostly stem from cultural matters; specifically, the England players taking the knee. This annoys me for three reasons. One is that the people who are doing this are usually the very same ones who go on about how the left politicises everything and why can’t they just be open to other points of view and not demonise those who hold different beliefs to themselves. Then they turn around and despise one of the most successful managers England have ever had, all because of his politics. And what’s worse than that is, it’s not like Southgate is even that woke (although I’ve lost track now of what that word is even supposed to mean). He’s mildly metrosexual at best.
The second reason the baseless criticism of Southgate gets to me is that I personally don’t care about the politics of the England manager. I don’t care if they are UKIPy as heck, loved Brexit, use words like “wokerati” – genuinely, I don’t give a toss. As long as they win, I just don’t care. I suppose there are theoretical limits to this. If England had a manager that was an outright Nazi, I don’t think I could look the other way. But seriously, it would have to get to that level for me to begin to care about the England manager’s politics. And I think the people who are always going on about the “marketplace of ideas” should be the first to agree with me on this one.
The final reason I loathe the doing down of Southgate for political matters, both real and imagined, is the decade of English football prior to him becoming England manager. It was really, really, really dire and it feels like all of those on the right calling for Southgate to get his P45 have engaged in a bout of collective amnesia so deep and so wide, I find it baffling.
England’s football dark ages began shortly after the 2006 World Cup. England had made the quarter-finals of the last three international tournaments, but could get no further. After they went out to Portugal on penalties, again, the FA called time on manager Sven Goran-Eriksson’s period as manager. A brief note on Sven: he was the first foreign manager England had ever had. The team improved greatly under him, but never got to that next stage. The FA were certain the team had more to give and the right manager would get it out of them.
They hired Steve McClaren, going English again, which was a disaster. England failed to qualify for the 2008 Euros in dramatic fashion – needing a draw against Croatia at Wembley, England were beaten 3-2. That scoreline greatly flatters England as well; Croatia were up 2-0 inside of 15 minutes and cruised the rest of the way (they had already qualified). After McClaren left, they went foreign again, deciding that the Sven model wasn’t so bad after all. They hired Fabio Capello, a man with a stellar managing record in club football, having been at the helm of AC Milan, Real Madrid, Roma and Juventus.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work out either. England qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa but were desperately uninspired at the tournament. In fact, the 0-0 draw against Algeria is the worst football match I have ever watched in my life. England looked messy, disorganised, bereft of a plan. What followed was Germany tanking England 4-1. Everyone remembers this match for Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal which should have been given, but that’s just a distraction technique. England would have still lost the match, even if it had counted. Again, the 4-1 scoreline was flattering to England – Germany could have scored six or seven with better luck.
So bereft of options were the FA by this stage, Capello was allowed to stay on. Eventually, it all became too much and he left. It felt like the FA basically gave up at this point in time. They were broken. Ambition was notably scaled down. They hired Roy Hodgson, a very likeable bloke who even at the time was verging on national treasure status, to guide England to respectable failure. It seemed like the idea now was that if England could get to the knockout stages of the tournaments and not be too embarrassed when they got there, that was all that was required. The delusions of grandeur, of going on and winning tournaments, were parked.
For a while, this worked. It was a strange period for English football – the tabloids, who not all that long ago used to treat every tournament as if it was England’s to win, became much more subdued. It was like the nation of England collectively realised our football team was not as good as we had imagined for so long. The 2012 Euros saw England get to the quarter-finals and lose to Italy on penalties. Very good, very Robson era. Unfortunately, the 2014 World Cup was a lot worse for England. They went out in the group stage without a win, getting throughly beaten by Italy and Uruguay along the way.
Yet England hadn’t reached rock bottom yet. In the 2016 Euros, England got through to the final 16, only to face an Iceland team made up of non-professional footballers. There were cheery stories in the English press about what they all did for a living (I think one of them was a baker and another postman, from what I can recall). England were going to win this 4-0 and then get destroyed by France in the quarters. If that had happened, who knows, Roy Hodgson might still be England manager.
England lost to Iceland 2-1. It is perhaps England’s greatest ever loss in international football, with its only rival being the loss in the 1950 World Cup to America. That was it. The Hodgson era was over. And the FA was completely out of options now. Forget about winning tournaments, England were in danger at this stage of slipping out of the second tier of footballing nations and into the third; relegated from being amongst the likes of Sweden or Greece, teams that if they really got it together and had all the luck in the world, might get to a tournament final, and being more like Kazakhstan or Macedonia, where just getting to a tournament at all is success.
That’s why they gave Southgate a shot. I mean, why not, how could he be any worse than the others, right? Give him a couple of years and then go foreign again. Who knows, maybe third time lucky.
What happened instead is nothing short of miraculous. Southgate got England to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, a match that England could have won with a bit of luck. That’s extraordinary, and the brilliance of it isn’t talked about enough. To go from losing to Iceland to a World Cup semi-final in two years is managerial genius at work.
Then he went one better and got England to the finals of a major tournament, something England hadn’t managed since 1966. Now, we are on the verge of a quarter-final against France that if England were to win, who knows how far we could go. England have looked like one of the best sides in the tournament so far, with the exception of the USA match which England at least got the point they needed from.
And yet, there are parts of the right that don’t seem happy with all of this. Have they forgotten the dark ages already? It appears they have. They sometimes employ the “It’s not Southgate, it’s the players” excuse, but I’ve heard all that before. I was around to hear about England’s “Golden Generation” that never came good. No, this is down to Southgate. England’s success is his success. That’s why I love the guy. And even if England lose to France tomorrow, the FA would be mad not to do everything to hold on to him as manager. If he does go, England could be staring down the barrel of another decade of defeat – without the miracle of a Gareth Southgate to come along and rescue them next time.