How Gareth Southgate was destined for the England top job: WhatsApp groups, crackdowns on cliques and sleepless nights over tactics – it’s all been in plain sight for eight years
- Gareth Southgate has been destined for the top job since taking over the U21’s
- The manager showed he could be tough with the younger players he managed
- He also set up WhatsApp groups so his players felt at home and involved
- The England boss is more than ready for the Euro 2020 final on Sunday
- Find out the latest Euro 2020 news including fixtures, live action and results here
For a man who excels in communication, it is appropriate that this story on Gareth Southgate begins with a phone call.
In the summer of 2013, there wasn’t much to feel good about around the Football Association. It had been a bleak period for their development teams and the Under 21s had been embarrassed at the European Championship in Israel. The squad was fractured, the attitude of some poor.
Stuart Pearce paid the price and his contract wasn’t renewed after six years in charge. He had been a great England player; the same was true of David Platt, the Under 21s manager from 2001 to 2004.
Gareth Southgate has brought the feel-good factor back to the English national team
Both found past achievements were no source of inspiration to a current generation.
Why would it be different with Southgate, critics asked? They saw a man who had been sacked by Middlesbrough in October 2009, having been manager when they were relegated the previous May. The FA, though, saw beyond those bare facts.
Southgate was appointed after an exhaustive process from a 10-man pool of candidates. Peter Taylor was on that list; Steve McClaren wanted to be considered for the position, as did former Manchester United assistant boss Rene Meulensteen. But one man stood out.
Southgate was interviewed twice at Wembley — once by Sir Trevor Brooking, Dan Ashworth and Adrian Bevington, then again by Alex Horne and former chairman Greg Dyke — and left all convinced of his credentials.
Brooking and Bevington had initially been instrumental in bringing Southgate to the FA, as the head of elite development, and saw his long-term potential.
Southgate was thrilled to get the chance to work with the Under 21s but before he could, he felt compelled to ring Pearce.
Southgate spoke to his former England team-mate Stuart Pearce before he took the U21 job
The pair had a close bond; Pearce once took Southgate to a Sex Pistols concert and, on the infamous tour of Hong Kong in 1996, advised his young mate to avoid going out with the crowd on a night that ended with a number of players drinking in the infamous dentist’s chair.
It wouldn’t have sat right with Southgate had he not discussed the situation with Pearce. Once the call was made, anxieties were assuaged. With his conscience clear, Southgate took charge of his first match – a 1-0 win against Moldova with Luke Shaw and John Stones in defence.
A measure of how seriously Southgate took his duties was evident in one of his first decisions. He had been a pundit for ITV but as soon as he signed his contract to work at St George’s Park, he took himself out of the media. He didn’t want anyone thinking there was a safety net under him. Results were good early on.
A promising striker called Harry Kane scored a hat-trick in his third match in charge against San Marino; England plundered 23 goals in his first six matches that autumn, but it would be wrong to say it was plain sailing.
His captain, Andre Wisdom, was sent off in his second game against Finland; his fourth match – a 5-0 drubbing of Lithuania at Ipswich – saw Ravel Morrison and Wilfried Zaha trade blows. In San Marino, Raheem Sterling threw a tantrum after Kane wouldn’t let him take a penalty.
The manager worked with Harry Kane at U21 level, with the striker scoring a hat-trick in his third game
He was also tough with Raheem Sterling when clashed with Kane over taking a penalty
Quickly, Southgate showed that the idea he was someone meek, an FA blazer if you will, was nonsense. If you let Southgate down once, it would be rare to get the chance to atone. Wisdom, Morrison and Zaha were jettisoned. Sterling was told there was no room for petulance.
Just because he doesn’t rant or rave doesn’t mean he is without authority. What makes his leadership so impressive is delegating — Steve Holland has been his trusted assistant all the way through — and he listens to experts in their field and isn’t afraid to pass on responsibility.
You could see through those first months that he was going to change the culture.
One of his main achievements was to get England playing in the Toulon Tournament again, as Southgate felt it was imperative for the youngsters to be exposed to different styles of play from around the world. He took England back to the south of France for the first time in nine years in May 2014 and they finished fourth, having played against Colombia, Qatar, Brazil, South Korea and Portugal.
Southgate found the experience richly beneficial and vowed to return. Watching him at work, you could see a philosophy emerging as he urged the players in drills to ‘enjoy the ball, enjoy the ball’.
Another big change was the atmosphere he encouraged in the camp. He wanted international duty to feel as familiar for players as being at their clubs and he achieved that. WhatsApp groups were established to keep everyone connected; no cliques were allowed to develop.
Southgate showed he was no pushover when he jettonised Ravel Morrison and Wilfried Zaha for their on-the-field clash
By the time he took England back to Toulon two years later in 2016, Southgate had experienced the other side of the fence.
For all that his young team had qualified for the 2015 European Championship in style, they struggled in the tournament in the Czech Republic. He had left no stone unturned in trying to create the right environment – England stayed in a hotel close to the centre of town in Olomouc, so the squad could relax between games and visit cafes – but they were found wanting against Portugal and Italy.
When he took a squad to Bosnia for a Euro 2017 qualifier in Sarajevo, he was frustrated with how some things were going. He had been unable to pick players he wanted and the lack of competitive games proved exasperating. But the summer of 2016 proved to be a turning point. The squad he selected, which included Jack Grealish and Jordan Pickford, went back to Toulon.
Southgate is a deep thinker about the game and though he had been playing 4-2-3-1, on arrival in France he had a sleepless night pondering the system. In an early morning call to Holland, he told him that things would be changing.
England would play with two strikers and a midfield diamond: the outcome was consecutive wins against Portugal, Guinea, Paraguay, Japan and France, the last one clinching the trophy for the first time since 1994.
Steve Holland has been Southgate’s trusted assistant all the way through is journey
That night as they celebrated, Southgate told everyone about the importance of getting silverware. He explained how heavily the England shirt could weigh on some shoulders but he had seen enough in those three years, from various individuals, to believe the future was bright.
While it wasn’t enough for certain judges – Harry Redknapp called Toulon a second-rate tournament and said Southgate only knew a ‘losing formula’ at the FA – those who had been close knew Southgate had all the tools if the top job ever came his way.
What you have seen over the past month – the tough decisions, the empowerment of players, the switching of systems – has been in plain sight for eight years. Everything has been building towards this moment against Italy on Sunday.
Do not doubt that the man in the dugout is ready.
There’s no doubting that the England manager is ready for the final against Italy on Sunday
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