Gareth Southgate Must Give Freedom a Chance after Numbing England Spectacle

England

London – Put out more flags. Dust down the red and white jester’s hat. Root out the gumshield, the crumpled Yekaterinburg metro map. And prepare to head once more into that strangely grueling territory between bruised and fearful cynicism and the eternal quiver of tournament hope.

England have booked their place at the World Cup in Russia after surely the most meandering, flaccid qualification victory yet devised by any England team. Slovenia were beaten by Harry Kane’s goal but make no mistake – this was both a dreadful game of football and a numbing spectacle for those loyal supporters still willing to drag themselves out on a Thursday night to enter the vast money-rinsing concrete cauldron of the Wembley entertainment complex.

Victory may have sealed qualification, but it also deflated further any realistic expectations of what might happen when England get there. This should be of great concern to the Football Association. There are only so many times even England fans will be prepared to pay £40 for the pleasure of throwing paper airplanes at the pitch, which brought the loudest cheers of the night right up until Kane’s finish in stoppage time.

At the end England’s players gathered in the center circle and wandered around applauding the empty red plastic seats and the backs of people queuing to leave while the PA burbled gamely about the prestige friendlies to come. As an image of England football 2017, and the slow, gilded death for what was once football’s most compelling theater, it is probably quite hard to beat.

England were at least terrible in a grimly fascinating way. Gone are the days when a poor England team sent it long, seeking out the head of some game forward battering ram. Here they were terrible in the new style, passing to each other but setting out with two lumbering central midfield wardrobes shielding a defense threatened only by its own misplaced passes. In the opening hour they produced a performance so lacking in purpose and precision it was like watching a piece of performance art, a 45-minute Warhol-style short film called Wembley Angst No94.

England did improve after the hour mark but by then they had a lot of ground to make up from a standing start as the game congealed early on into another game just like the other games. Jordan Henderson had the ball quite a lot, worrying about from side to side, always looking back into the yonic safety of his defense. Midway through the half England produced a stunningly terrible free-kick routine, working the ball very slowly backwards and finally teeing it up for Henderson to perform a spectacular falling-over air-kick on the edge of the area. Grimly, Slovenia cleared.

Only Marcus Rashford seemed really interested in trying to run forward quickly. Raheem Sterling ran quite a lot. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. And that was pretty much that for the most soft-pedaled minor chord moment of qualification imaginable, given a spark of life at the death by Kane’s opportunism.

What now then? One thing is clear. England does not expect. It has been more than a decade since the national team had the luxury of traveling in a state of doomed optimism, the mood ever more stricken since that golden, foolish summer of 2006 when the world was still young, when Crouchie did the robot with Prince William, and when the idea of some grand Premier League talent-legacy waiting to be spent died for good on the fields of Stuttgart, Cologne and Gelsenkirchen.

The challenge now for Gareth Southgate is not to try to reach the World Cup final. It is to produce a team that people actually want to watch. This has been a deathly qualification, with only 16 goals scored and a feeling of having spent endless hours watching England’s furrowed and fearful back five play a variety of keep-ball.

From here it seems absolutely clear Southgate needs to take a chance, to chuck out the Dan Ashworth handbook of mind-bogglingly dull and outmoded possession football, to accept that playing with adventure, life, pace, and risky attacking vim might revive not just the dwindling England brand but his own managerial career.

In their current guise, watching England is like watching a 12-round under-card split decision wrestle-off between a pair of ponderous 15st taxi drivers, the craft-free double defensive midfield bolt the managerial equivalent of tucking both your shirt and your vest into your underpants.

What is the point of playing this way? From here to next summer every moment of Southgate’s time should be devoted to trying to wring the most out of what he does have, a spritz of genuine forward talent in Kane, Dele Alli and Rashford. He needs a midfielder who can pass. And he needs to trust his defense to carry the ball forward.

Success for this team would involve simply playing with a little freedom, exploring their own limits and refusing to leave the competition until they have at least been beaten by a demonstrably superior team. Score some goals. Produce at least one performance that lets everyone feel giddy and stupid and deluded for four days in June.

There is a wider issue here about international football itself. When the away fans in Malta last month sang against their team, they weren’t angry or incensed or spoiling for a fight. They were taking the mickey out of the whole thing: England, us, them, the enduring disjunct between a domestic league of such screeching urgency and a national team who have withered in its shadow. Take note, Gareth. It is when they stop booing you really want to start worrying. For now England will travel with hope, as ever. But not much of it.

The Guardian Sport

How England Can Find World Cup Spark and Repair Disconnect with Fans

Southgate

London – The sense of anticlimax was inescapable. Gareth Southgate had spent his evening on the touchline dodging paper airplanes, tedium-induced origami, and blocking out occasional spasms of booing from the home support, and was left to plead for patience after the match. It matters not that plenty of nations would love to be in England’s position. Argentina are in real danger of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970 after drawing with Peru in Buenos Aires. Holland are third in their group and in peril, while even the European champions, Portugal, are facing up to the likelihood of a play-off. The same fate almost certainly awaits Italy. England, in contrast, have emerged unbeaten through another qualification campaign and yet the mood was almost apologetic.

Southgate, asked if he was enjoying himself a year into his tenure, mustered a rueful smile. “Well, weirdly, I am,” he said. “Although I’m not certain I’m standing here thinking: ‘Wow, isn’t it brilliant to have qualified for a World Cup,’ feeling all the love. But I get it, I get it. I go back to the first objective being to qualify, and we have done that. Now we look at how we build, evolve and improve. In international football you don’t have a chequebook of hundreds of millions of pounds to spend. So we have to coach and work to improve people and the team, and that is the great challenge. I get how people are feeling about us at the moment but I also believe in the potential of these players. I want to build a team that the country are proud of.” Now Southgate has Sunday’s qualifier in Lithuania and, at best, four friendly fixtures before he must select a squad for the tournament in Russia. So what areas must England address most urgently if they are to repair the disconnect between team and support?

Conjure some kind of creativity in central midfield

Adam Lallana should have played again for Liverpool by the time England confront Brazil and Germany, Fifa’s top-ranked sides, in friendlies next month and will be reintegrated immediately at international level, but he will find his reputation has soared in absentia. England’s shortcomings are felt most keenly in a lack of creation. Everything was a plod on Thursday, as it has been so often in a qualification campaign littered with slow starts, with the shepherding of the ball as labored as the movement of the players when confronted by massed defense. Oh for a bit of zest, some incision, a burst of quality in the pass. Lallana’s forte is his movement, and his front-foot urgency and aggression in the pass will make a difference. Southgate must wish Jack Wilshere had not slipped so far down the pecking order at Arsenal, for all that he cannot rule out the 25-year-old still making a late case for involvement. “We’re in a position where there’s no way we would dismiss any creative player,” he said. “But, of course, people have to be playing at a good level.”But where are the other options? Has, say, Harry Winks done enough to suggest he can be the answer? Is there anyone else out there? Southgate believes there are players in the system who will go on to impress at the highest level, but they are 18 months to two years away from being ready. So, if the personnel are out of reach, a system of play must be employed that taps better into what qualities the current collective do possess.

Is there scope to explore a back three again?

Arguably England’s most persuasive performance under Southgate’s stewardship was the narrow, and unfortunate, defeat by Germany in March when the manager experimented with a back three with some success. Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and Michael Keane started in Dortmund behind a pair of midfield anchors, and with the energetic Dele Alli and Lallana supporting Jamie Vardy. There was width and pace from full-back and proper bite on the counterattack. It was a tactic to which the team resorted in the latter stages against Slovenia on Thursday when the visitors went for broke, and it may be an approach that ekes the best from this group against more fancied, enterprising opponents at the finals. England will surely be more of a threat on the break against better teams than they are when asked to break down opponents. Germany and Brazil will test that theory.

Pray English players benefit from involvement in the Champions League latter stages

Southgate was at pains to point to this group’s lack of experience – “they’re young players and most of them have never been to a World Cup so this is a big moment in their careers”– and acknowledged they will find themselves in the company of sides laced with Champions League and league championship winners. That rather overlooked the reality that, in Cahill and Ryan Bertrand, he has two European Cup winners, not to mention players who have claimed the Premier League with Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. But he was right in hoping the likes of Marcus Rashford and Alli, Kyle Walker and John Stones, sharpen their skills in the Champions League this season and thrive at that level. “The younger lads are playing more big games in the Champions League and, if they get to the latter stages and maybe the finals, all these big-pressure games will help this squad,” said Cahill. “We’ve held our own against the likes of Spain and Germany but to have the knack to go on and win those games … that’s something we can learn. To kill teams off when we’re playing well. That’s the gap.” Game management in highly pressurized occasions is something that has to be learned. The more familiar this group’s key players become with tense elite contests, the more likely England are to make an impact in Russia.

So, if we acknowledge we cannot be like Spain, can we be like Iceland?

“Are we going to become Spain in the next eight months?” asked Southgate on Thursday night. “No, we’re not.” But, if we can accept England’s options are not going to blossom unexpectedly, can we not at least aspire to be like Iceland at the World Cup? Not necessarily in style, but in structure, playing to a distinct and clear plan that brings the best out of those available? Iceland’s strength at Euro 2016 was an unswerving belief in their approach and an ability to implement a relatively simple gameplan. The approach only took them so far, of course, and they were found out by France. But, by then, they had seen off England and reached a quarter-final. Southgate would thrill at the prospect of doing likewise in the context of recent tournament traumas. Yet another troubling aspect of England’s qualification is that, for all the talk of progress, on the pitch a clear plan and thought process have not always been evident. The management team feel a plan is being implemented. They believe they are drumming it into the players at every get-together. Yet it is not always easy to notice from the outside looking in. If the supporters can identify what the team are trying to achieve, maybe the skepticism will recede.

The Guardian Sport

Germany’s Stand on ‘Despicable’ Fans Puts Silent England to Shame

Germany

London – That was some performance from Joachim Löw, the Germany national manager, after the jarring evidence during the international break that there are still a few troglodytes among his team’s support who seem hell-bent on providing living proof of Einstein’s theory that there is no limit to human stupidity.

Löw had just seen his team win 2-1 against the Czech Republic in Prague, maintaining an immaculate record in their World Cup qualifying group, but when he arrived for his press conference, face like thunder, the questions about his team’s performance had to wait. “I am neither upset nor sad,” he began. “I am full of rage, that explains my feelings better. I am really, really angry about this – that some so-called fans have used the stage of an international football match, and the stage of football, to bring shame on our country with their embarrassing behavior and appearance. We don’t want these anarchists. We are not their national team and they are not our fans. Their behavior was the lowest of the low and utterly despicable.”

It isn’t usual to hear a manager speak this way but, then again, these weren’t usual circumstances. A section of Germany’s support had disrupted a minute’s silence, abused one of their own players, Timo Werner, and followed up the traditional chants of “Sieg” (victory) towards the end of the game with an echoed “Heil”. It was an abomination and, at the final whistle, something happened that the people who follow die Mannschaft tell me they have never seen before. Germany’s players refused to go to the away end. They didn’t wave, there was no clapping, zero appreciation. It was a choreographed protest, a public disavowal and a clear, defiant message that they didn’t want any association.

For that, the players deserve our applause and Mats Hummels, in particular, as the captain who directed his team-mates off the pitch and made it absolutely clear it was a time to make a stand. “The chants were a catastrophe,” Hummels said later. “They started during the minute’s silence, which shows you the kind of people we’re dealing with. Timo Werner was insulted and ridiculed. Then the fans started shouting their insults. We distance ourselves completely from it and want nothing to do with it. And that’s why we didn’t go [to them].”

Bravo, that man, and what a pity England’s players did not have it in them to do the same in response to that abysmal night in Dortmund six months ago and the absence of respect for their hosts from the corner of the Westfalenstadion decorated in St. George’s flags.

That occasion needed a strong voice, too, when virtually the entire soundtrack was about the second world war and the only real choreography came in the form of the outstretched arms, creating a fleet of pretend fighter planes, during the various renditions of Ten German Bombers, one lasting fully 15 minutes, and how “the RAF from England shot them down”.

Unfortunately, it did not get one. Gareth Southgate’s comments were, frankly, not nearly enough and let’s not kid ourselves: it won’t even have crossed the players’ minds that they might be in a position to affect change and try to stop it happening again. The modern‑day England footballer just isn’t made that way. You will never find one speaking in the way that Hummels did. And more’s the pity.

The only counter-argument is that the 21,000-capacity Eden Arena in Prague is a much smaller stadium than the Westfalenstadion, making what happened feel even more intrusive and lamentable, and the behavior was on a different, more sinister level than the backdrop to the Germany-England encounter.

Maybe that’s true. Reports in Germany say the 100 or so troublemakers were associated with Dynamo Dresden and a number of other clubs from the former East Germany, where right‑wing extremism is said to be more prominent than other parts of the country. They mostly wore black and targeted their own football association with chants of “scheisse, DFB” during what was supposed to be a minute’s silence. Rudolf Kocek, president of the Czechoslovak FA when they won 1976 European Championship, was one of the people the host nation wanted to remember. Rudolf Bat’a, the organization’s former general secretary, was another; and so was Lenka Civinova, who was on holiday in Egypt during the summer when a terrorist went on the rampage in two beachfront hotels. Civinova, 36, the Czech FA’s accountant, was among the seven tourists stabbed. Two of the dead were actually from Germany.

It isn’t easy to understand why anybody would want to shout that down, but don’t forget what happened when England arranged a minute’s silence against Brazil in 2013 to honor the people who died in the Munich air tragedy, the 20th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s death and the 238 victims of a nightclub fire in Santa Maria. Perhaps you might remember the England-Wales match in 2004 and what happened after a request by the authorities for a minute’s silence for Ken Bigley, the news of whose murder by terrorists in Iraq had broken the previous day.

The difference on those occasions is that it is very rare for anyone involved with England – the manager, the captain, any of the players – ever to dare criticize their own supporters, even when criticism would be deserved, and it is a shame they have never found their voice when Löw, Hummels and their various colleagues have shown that it is possible to make a stand and in the process, change the narrative.

The FA did hold a media briefing three months after the Dortmund game to go over what had happened but nobody from the England setup itself was prepared to go on record even though it was clear by that point it was more than just a few beery, offensive chants. The footage of England’s end showed people making Nazi salutes and slit-throat gestures. One member of the choir could be seen holding a finger above his lip to imitate Hitler, in between gesturing that he would stab the German fans. All of which brought to mind the verdict of one Philadelphia Inquirer columnist after the United States had been awarded the 1994 World Cup. “What’s the first word to come into your head when I say: ‘British soccer fan’?” he asked. “It was ‘sub-human’, wasn’t it? I rest my case.”

It’s a nice line but, in reality, there are plenty of people who go abroad to watch England and enjoy their adventures without restoring to time‑warp chanting, 90-minute xenophobia or pretend patriotism about conflicts from another phase of history.

Yet it was still easy enough to find lads going through “No Surrender” in the queues on Wembley Way after England’s last game and, when it comes to next year’s World Cup, it has been interesting to hear from the relevant authorities about some of the supporters who will be making that trip to Russia and why those people had better wise up bearing in mind what could be waiting for them.

England’s troublemakers still tend to wear the same uniform that was fashionable on the terraces a quarter of a century ago – Stone Island, Burberry, Adidas trainers (more Gazelles than the Maasai Mara) – but it is a different form of trouble these days. The old category-C hooligans have gone, for the most part, and in their place it is a new breed of younger supporters, largely 19 to 25, who are not so dangerous but make up for that by adopting an anything-goes, stag-weekend mentality, whereby they take pride in behaving badly and regard England trips as a bit of escapism. When the FA’s travel club emailed its members after the Germany game a number of replies came back telling the FA to stop being spoilsports, arguing the behavior was exactly how they liked it.

The difficult part is breaking that kind of mentality and perhaps Southgate and his players missed a trick when the alternative, as their equivalents in Germany have shown, would have been to turn their backs and disown the people who still confuse international football matches with old medieval tournaments.

It doesn’t automatically mean that when Germany go on future excursions the demagogues and dunderheads will stay away or come with a new songbook. But at least the manager and players of the world champions have realized this kind of behavior affects them, too, and that it would be better to confront it rather than sitting on their hands and deciding it is somebody else’s problem. That has to count for something and, for that alone, it is tempting to think their English counterparts could learn a thing or two.

The Guardian Sport

Gareth Southgate: Wayne Rooney Stood out Even among Golden Generation

Rooney

London – Gareth Southgate laughs when the subject of a golden generation is jokingly raised. The England manager has just named a squad of 28 players from 15 different clubs, a far cry from some of his predecessors’ moans about a shrinking talent pool and a limited number of Premier League sides worth watching, yet even though he has been able to leave out a few deserving candidates Southgate knows that particular pressure is not one he need work under for a while.

The retirement of Wayne Rooney only serves to emphasize that what is past is now past and the future under Southgate can begin with a clean slate. “There is no basis for deluding ourselves,” he says. “Very few of these players have won anything with their clubs.

“We are talking in a lot of cases about potential and we have to try and help that potential come to the fore. The great guide for me was our games against Spain, Germany and France last season. In moments we have shown we can play at a really good level, we can score goals against the top teams and we can defend well, but we didn’t win any of those games.

“That is a good marker for me about the level of improvement we still need. Our players might think they have reached the top, but we are not there yet and that’s the message. When we start beating some of those top teams we can start getting a bit more excited. Where we are is 14 months on from being knocked out of the Euros in the second round by Iceland.”

Perhaps it is just as well England are in a relatively undemanding World Cup qualification group, with games coming up against Malta (Friday) and Slovakia (the following Monday). England ought to have enough experience to take points from those games even without their most-capped outfield player and record goalscorer. Indeed, it was probably the recognition that while his squad presence was valued he was no longer guaranteed a place in the starting XI that helped Rooney reach his decision.

Southgate has been careful to leave the door slightly ajar – should Rooney continue to enjoy a rejuvenation at Everton it makes no sense to rule out a recall for the tournament – though the same calculation is likely to be necessary next summer. On balance, it is unlikely that Rooney will secure a place in the team instead of Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli through his goalscoring prowess; it is more probable that Southgate will want him in the squad for his experience, example and influence on younger players. Whether Rooney will fancy that remains to be seen, though Southgate is in no doubt that the player’s contribution to the England cause over the years has been outstanding and that no one in the present squad appears capable of taking a tournament by storm as a young Rooney did in Euro 2004.

“When Wayne came through he was at a level which is different to any of the players we’ve got at the moment.” Southgate says. “I was playing with him at that time and his attributes, strengths, goalscoring, range of passing and intelligence aged 17-18 was better than any of the players in the current squad. We are talking a different level. You’ve got very good players and then there are top players.

“In my time in the England setup, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes and Rooney just had that little bit more than all the others. And we are talking high‑level people there, players like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham, so the really outstanding talents are very few and far between. That’s where Rooney was and all our guys have still got that to prove.”

It was England’s misfortune that two of that triumvirate of peerless talents never burned as brightly again after the excitement of their breakthrough years, while Scholes ended up retiring from international football earlier than he might have done through being played out of position to accommodate Gerrard and Lampard in the middle. At least Rooney went on to gather 119 caps, almost as many as Scholes (66) and Gascoigne (57) accumulated between them, though in terms of tournament performances the graph after Portugal in 2004 resembles something of a cliff edge.

That is where the golden generation went, though with England Under-20s winning their World Cup in the summer Southgate is reasonably relaxed about the future, even if he does not think any of that squad are quite ready to make the step up to the senior side.

“Not that many of them are playing regularly for their clubs,” he says. “Dominic Calvert-Lewin has had a couple of games for Everton and there are one or two like Dominic Solanke who could really push a cause if they get a run of games, but Liverpool have some outstanding attacking players.

“I saw that for myself when they played Hoffenheim. Even Daniel Sturridge has competition on his hands there and hopefully that will bring the best out of him. I spoke to Jürgen Klopp before selecting him and he was very positive. He was impressed with his physical preparation this summer, so even though he has not played a lot of games I thought it would be good to have Daniel involved so he knows he is still on our radar.

“At any big club you have competition for places, and that is certainly true at Liverpool. I even asked Jürgen after the Hoffenheim game whether Sadio Mané had any English grandparents. Unfortunately he said not.”

The Guardian Sport

The Making of Gareth Southgate: from Crystal Palace Captain to England Boss

Southgate

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

Gareth Southgate: ‘Only Gazza could have done that Celebration’

Southgate

It was while Gareth Southgate was looking ahead to England’s game against Scotland and reiterating the importance of “emotional control” in these fixtures that his mind went back to Euro 96 and the kind of sketch that probably felt perfectly normal then bearing in mind the identity of the man around whom the story revolves.

Those were the days when Paul Gascoigne’s team-mates felt a collective sense of duty to help, in the carefully chosen words of Southgate, “calm him down” – or to be brutal about it, “get him out of our hair for a couple of hours” – and one ploy was to send him fishing in the afternoon with David Seaman, knowing the only occasion when England’s most talented player could be guaranteed to sit still was if he had a fishing rod in his hand.

On the day of England-Scotland it was out of the question and Gascoigne, a Rangers player at the time, was hyped to the point his team-mates were starting to think he might spontaneously combust. “I’m not sure emotional control was his style,” Southgate recalls, with an element of unmistakable fondness. “So, Bryan Robson made him a little fishing rod with a line dangling from it. Not a real fishing rod but something they created out of the stuff they found in the medical skip. And there was Gazza, sitting on the side of the big bath in the Wembley dressing-rooms, with his fishing rod. Pretend fishing, because that was the only time he ever relaxed.

“God knows what he was actually fishing for but presumably whatever might have been floating in the bath, which was probably more pleasant before the game than it was after. Funny, but that was the sort of bizarre thing that would go on when Gazza was around.”

It did the trick, bearing in mind Gascoigne’s contribution to a 2-0 victory included an expertly manoeuvred up-and-over to put Colin Hendry on his backside followed by a right-footed volley past Andy Goram for what was later voted the goal of the century in one television poll. The celebration was not bad either, lying on the ground while his team-mates squirted drink into his mouth to re-enact one of the more infamous nights involving England’s players. “Only he could have done that celebration,” Southgate says. “I mean, how does it even cross your mind? ‘Oh yes, got to do the Dentist’s Chair.’”

That goal will feature prominently in the video montage the Football Association has put together, on Southgate’s request, for England’s players before Friday’s World Cup qualifier and an occasion the caretaker manager is absolutely determined will not pass with the opposition having a better understanding of the sporting enmity that exists between the sides.

One story Southgate recalled was of the Wembley crowd cheering Patrick Kluivert’s consolation goal in England’s 4-1 defeat of Holland, their next match at Euro 96 after the Scotland win, on the basis it meant the Dutch qualified on goal difference at the expense of Scotland. The video regales England’s finest moments against the old enemy, going back to the 1930s, with an unapologetic bias that means the players will not be getting a history lesson about Jim Baxter’s ball control or the Scottish invasion of Wembley, 1977. It does not, Southgate confirmed, feature “any keepy-uppies or anybody sitting on the crossbars”.

Southgate, it may be no surprise to learn, was not among the players who accompanied Gascoigne to a Hong Kong club, having been given a free night by Terry Venables, and were photographed, in various states of disrepair, strapped into a leather chair while tequila was poured down their throats.

The man now angling to become England’s full-time manager is willing to admit it was a close call. “That was the night Terry had cut the squad,” Southgate says. “He had left out Ugo [Ehiogu], Wisey [Dennis Wise], Peter Beardsley and a couple of others [Rob Lee and Jason Wilcox]. I had got pally with Stuart Pearce and I said to him: ‘We’re having a night out with the lads.’ He said: ‘Nah, in my experience of England if you go out for a drink it’s as if nobody has ever drunk before in their lives – my advice is swerve it.’ I’d just got in the squad. Sometimes advice like that is good.”
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Twenty years on Southgate bristled slightly when it was put to him that England, post Euro 2016, and Scotland, 18 years since competing in a major tournament, had never met with the two teams at a lower ebb. “History sometimes paints a slightly rosier picture of the past,” he countered. “There have been tournaments in the past when we haven’t qualified. There have been matches and tournaments, when I was growing up, with defeats that were considered the worst-ever.

“I was with Gordon Taylor [the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association] on Saturday and he said: ‘I can remember 1950, losing to America, and everybody was saying the same thing then.’ Maybe we colour the past with a different view but I don’t think England’s games in the past were always as great as our memories think they were.”

The point remains that the qualifier is one England dare not lose on the back of a traumatic few months and, however much Southgate tried to argue his own position was immaterial, it is a huge occasion for him personally given the common perception that he will be offered the job full-time on the back of a strong performance.

“The last game at Wembley was an incredible atmosphere, probably as good as I’ve seen at the new Wembley,” he said, recalling England’s 3-2 win in August 2013. “It’s a special fixture. These are the games you want to be involved in and, if I go back to my days working as a TV broadcaster, the viewing figures will be five times that of a Premier League game. What more could you want?”

Southgate intends to tell his players they “have a chance to make some history or to play in a game that people will remember forever and that’s incredibly powerful. I want them to be aware of that and pitch it in the right way so the performance level is right and we are not over-emotional.

“We have to be cool-headed,” he added. “But it’s the oldest international fixture, with all the history between the two countries, and, if the players don’t understand that already, – and I’m pretty sure they do – we’ll make sure this week they are aware of it. I want the players to understand the importance of the shirt. We have to embrace the emotion of the occasion. Scotland’s mentality for a game like this will be unquestionable. Their spirit will be unquestionable. We’ll have to better that and outplay them.”

The Guardian Sport

Gareth Southgate: ‘You have to be Honest or Players Lose Faith and Belief in you’

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Gareth Southgate may be new to senior international management but as he prepares for the second half of a four-game audition for a role he is enjoying more than he expected, he admits he had concerns England would pay for their lack of big-match experience at Euro 2016.

Having inherited Sam Allardyce’s selection when stepping into the breach in September, the interim head coach will name his England squad on Sunday evening for the games against Scotland and Spain. Then he aims to broaden the leadership net to help the developing talent take greater responsibility and avoid the kind of freeze that cost Roy Hodgson’s players so ignominiously against Iceland in France.

“One of the concerns I had about the team going into the summer was there was not a lot of big-match experience,” Southgate told the Football Journalism students at the University of Derby this week. “People could argue Iceland isn’t a big match but any match for England in a major championship is big pressure.

“If you looked at the team 10 years ago, they would have had Terry, Ferdinand, Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Ashley Cole. They’d all have been in regular semi-finals of the Champions League, they all had big tournament experience.

“If you look at Spain and Germany, their guys have huge international experience but also most of their players at Madrid and Barcelona are challenging for La Liga every year [and] for the Champions League in high-pressure matches. So you’re building up a block of experience and belief.

“Most of our team last summer were guys who hadn’t been in that situation. Some of that can only come through experience, some of the understanding of how to deal with it comes from experience. Although painful for everybody, and I’ve had my own painful experiences in an England shirt, you are stronger for it and it’s then how you address it and move forward.”

Southgate could be forgiven for worrying about his own future, having been asked to look after England’s final four games of the year after Allardyce’s dramatic departure, but his graduation from nurturing the nation’s grassroots up to the under-21s over the past five years means he is more focused on developing the country’s needs.

A resounding victory over Scotland in next Friday’s World Cup qualifier at Wembley and a good performance in the friendly with Spain four days later would surely mean the full-time job is Southgate’s to turn down but he is more interested in the players’ development than his own.

He wants to alleviate the burden of leadership from Wayne Rooney’s shoulders, and nurture a captains’ cabal. The 46-year-old, who won 57 caps for his country during his playing career, was in relaxed mood as he explained how his experiences in charge of the under-21s, who won the Toulon Tournament in the summer, can aid the seniors. The progress of players such as Jack Butland and Harry Kane has been accelerated by this approach.

“With the under-21s we’ve tried to develop as many leaders as possible, and that involves giving people as much responsibility as we can,” Southgate said. “I think Wayne has had to lead a bit too much, a lot of the leadership has been resting on his shoulders.

“So small things like different people doing a press conference the night before the game, like we did with Theo Walcott last time, mean other people come into experiences where they are out of their comfort zone. When we work in workshops or other sessions, we have different people leading the group, ensure different people are speaking up.”

When speaking to the Derby students, Southgate continued: “Players are similar to you guys; it isn’t always easy to speak in front of your peers. Putting them in uncomfortable situations, on or off the training pitch, are all things that can help them step forward and take responsibility.

“So with the under-21s, we have a leadership group of five or six who take turns to do things like that and in the end they start to set the standards for the rest of the group. If somebody’s late for training, or their recovery sessions, it was Nathan Redmond or James Ward-Prowse who was pulling them back into line, rather than me as the coach.

“I think that’s more powerful if the team are doing that – and it saves me a lot of hassle! We want players to go out and take responsibility on the field so if we’re not giving them responsibility off the field on a daily basis then it’s very difficult for them to go and do it when they step up for a game.”

Southgate also believes maximising a relationship based on integrity between coach and player can improve performance. By offering truthful feedback rather than platitudes – or falsehoods – the coach would not only show concern for the individual player but aid his developing contribution to the team.

“I always thought it was helpful with the under-21s to have an honest conversation with a player. ‘You’re in the starting team and we think you need to work with this, this and this’ or, ‘you’re in the squad but to get into the team, these are the areas you need to improve upon’ or, ‘you’re in the squad and to stay in the squad you have to up your game’.

“I think that feedback is really important to players, I think they value one-to-one discussions. I think it has got to be honest. There is no use saying: ‘You’re really unlucky not to be in’ as it doesn’t mean anything, you are not giving a player something he can go away and work at.

“So I think it is important to be precise. Also players are pretty savvy; if you tell them something which they believe not to be true or in a couple of weeks’ time it isn’t true, then they’ll lose faith and belief in you. Sometimes those conversations are really difficult as you have to leave a player out but I think you owe it to them to be honest.”

Southgate is a great believer in the long-term development of players and teams but is also intent on enjoying the here and now. Managing your country may look pretty stressful but it is also a major opportunity.

“I set out that, although it has been a great responsibility, we were going to enjoy it because I don’t see the point of going into something and feeling it is a burden. I think the players would pick up on that most importantly. There will be games going on all over the country, with respect to the lower divisions, when I will be going out to [face] Scotland and Spain at Wembley so in the real world that is pretty exciting isn’t it?”

Neither is it the most stressful, notwithstanding the beam of publicity that comes with leading the nation’s football team. Being pitched into management at Middlesbrough at the age of 35, ironically when Steve McClaren left for the England job, was “by far the most stressful experience of my life … The intensity of [managing England] is different but actually I think the pressure is what you decide it is.”

Dealing with a relegation at Middlesbrough, after two years in mid-table, and with England’s failure to progress to the semi-finals of last year’s European Under-21 Championship has not dented Southgate’s vision of the way the game can be played but, despite the under-21s continuing with a passing game that showcases the FA’s DNA paradigm, he offers a pragmatic perspective for how England can approach Russia 2018.

Southgate has evidence that England’s age-group teams from under-16s to under-21s, over whom he has been in charge, are as technically proficient as any. But now England have made catching up on dominating possession a priority, the next challenge follows: to be more durable mentally and to adapt tactics according to a given situation.

This takes us back to where we came in which involves England players being capable of taking responsibility, being able to execute technique under pressure collectively. This will take time. Not many denigrate the technical abilities of Dele Alli, Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, Kane, John Stones et al. But England may need tough it out while this talented crew acquire the requisite mental resilience, Southgate suggests.

“You could go to a European Championship like Portugal just did and scramble your way through,” he said. “They found a different way to win and maybe that’s what we will need to do to have immediate success short term because I don’t think we’ll be the No1-ranked team in the world in a few years, because of the age of our players. So we’re going to have to be quite savvy in the ways that we get results.”

The Guardian Sport