London – Gareth Southgate’s path to becoming England manager has not followed the conventional route. Previous incumbents racked up many successful years in club and international management before being considered for the role. Roy Hodgson, for example, managed well over a dozen clubs and countries before being appointed national manager in 2012. Southgate’s only job as a club manager was with Middlesbrough between 2006 and 2009 and he had to ask for special dispensation from the Premier League to take on the role as he did not hold the required coaching qualifications. After Middlesbrough were relegated in 2009, Southgate was dismissed early into the new season and did not re-emerge until 2013, when he was appointed England Under-21 coach.
Last June, after the apocalyptic loss to Iceland ended Hodgson’s spell in charge, Southgate said he did not want the job. When he was approached about succeeding Sam Allardyce back in September, he accepted the interim role for four matches as he was still not convinced about taking on the job long-term. This reluctance may have counted against him had there been any other serious contenders but, as he was the only candidate interviewed, the FA were left with little choice but to give the 46-year-old a contract.
Southgate’s early days as a player at Crystal Palace show clear signs that he was destined for a bright future in coaching or management. Bob White, who was a youth coach at Palace and headed up the youth set-up between 1988 and 1990, remembers Southgate standing out from his contemporaries. “When he joined Palace on associate schoolboy forms, it was obvious that we had signed an intelligent lad and footballer,” White says. “He was always a popular young player and someone who others looked up to and respected, so it was a natural progression to becoming captain of our youth team.”
Aged 22 he was made captain of the first team and led Palace to promotion to the Premier League in the 1993-94 season. Southgate became club captain of all three professional clubs he played for and his attitude in those formative years at Selhurst Park was exemplary. “Even at that stage it was obvious that he listened to opinions of coaches and senior players as his game developed,” White says. “Of all the young players we had on our books at that time, which included Chris Powell, John Salako and Richard Shaw, Gareth was probably the one who would be earmarked as having a future role in the game as coach, manager, or in the media.”
His adaptability as a player illustrated his ability to think outside the normal conventions. Having started as an attacking midfielder and even a wide player when he first joined Palace, he then settled into a full-back role before taking on a central midfield position as he made it to the first team. After joining Aston Villa in 1995 he developed into a center-back, where he represented England over 50 times, including all of their matches at Euro 1996.
His flexibility can only have broadened his understanding of team shape as well as the variety of skills needed for different roles. So, while he may not have studied for coaching badges at this stage, he did gather good all-round knowledge that would prove useful when he became a manager. There was also a calm assurance in his play that showed he was aware of what was going on around him.
Southgate is remembered fondly at Crystal Palace but his time at Selhurst Park was not without its difficulties. Alan Smith, who coached and managed Southgate at Palace and later joined him at Middlesbrough, says the setbacks Southgate suffered in his early days made him tougher. “People forget that he was released by Southampton as a schoolboy before he came to us. He also had to deal with a series of disappointments after he joined us, taking a long while gaining a place in the first team, as he was passed over on countless occasions. He played well over 100 games for the reserves, which was a record at the time, before making his debut for the senior team.”
These were the days when young footballers earned £28 a week on the Youth Training Scheme and could be asked to play two matches in a day. Simon Osborn, one of Southgate’s contemporaries, says: “More than anyone else, Gareth wanted to make the best of his ability. He did think about the game a lot and he would beat himself up a bit if he had a bad game. We would all do it to a certain extent but it would take him a bit longer to get over it because he was so driven. He was always the one who would make sure that, if we did go out in the evenings, we didn’t break curfew. As young lads we all wanted to push the boundaries but he kept us in check.”
Geoff Thomas was the club captain when Southgate broke into the team in 1991 and was unsurprised that he took over the role when Thomas left for Wolves in 1993. “He was always one of the first youngsters, even though he was only about 16 at the time, who would be brought over to the first-team training and the fact that he could play in various roles helped enormously. In the dressing room he was bright enough to cope with everything that was thrown at him. He knew how to handle himself. He was good fun as well, he always had a smile on his face.”
“Gareth was like a sponge when he was younger,” Thomas says. “He took everything in and he was also such a nice guy. Nobody would have had a bad word to say about him. He had leadership qualities from the outset and was never afraid to speak out when things were going wrong – even with the senior players. He was always way ahead of his years in taking on responsibility, even to the extent of keeping all of us in check sometimes.”
Thomas also praises Southgate’s loyalty. By making over 150 appearances for each of his three clubs, he showed how highly he valued his relationship with those clubs. He was not a player who itched for a big-money move, despite a solid international career and well over a decade in the Premier League. Southgate was always willing to involve himself in all aspects of club life, which endeared him to everyone at Palace.
Southgate was very well mannered and there were times when Smith was concerned that his politeness might hold him back. He recalls a couple of times when he had to warn the young player. There was a youth match against the British Army, which they lost 3-0 and Southgate was going round shaking their hands after the match in an almost apologetic fashion. “I was furious and told him so. I said these guys are from SAS. They kill people for a living – do you think they go around saying sorry?”
He also recalls a time when Southgate was rejected for a job to work alongside Dave Bassett. Southgate thought he was in with a good chance as he knew a couple of the directors from dropping off his kids at the same school but in the end he was passed over because he was always shaking hands at the school gates and was considered too polite, too much of a nice bloke. This served as a further wake-up call.
Smith has every faith that Southgate will continue to learn from those around him, like he did at Palace. “When Ray Wilkins signed for us [in 1994] he was well known for the way he looked after himself and his preparations, so Gareth quickly latched on to him to find out exactly what made him tick,” Smith says. “Out of all the people I have met in my life, he’s up there for straightness. He’s just a decent bloke both off and on the field. But I get annoyed when people say he’s a bit soft as you don’t get to where he has, captaining three Premier League clubs and representing your country so many times, by being soft.”
If Southgate is as resilient, loyal and willing to learn at England as he was in his formative years at Palace, the country may have stumbled across the right man for the job. While there may still be the odd handshake, there will be no more Mr. Nice Guy.
The Guardian Sport