The man who made England smile again: Gareth Southgate doesn’t get every decision right but, as he reaches five years in the job, he’s created a team light-years away from where they were in 2016
- Gareth Southgate has transformed England’s side over the past five years
- He inherited a mess following the stupidity of his predecessor Sam Allardyce
- Southgate was initially viewed as a ‘yes’ man but he has worked wonders
- He has guided a group to a World Cup semi-final as well as a European final
The first thing to remember is how the landscape looked that day five years ago.
In October 2016, enthusiasm for the England team was at an all-time low. It wasn’t much higher for Gareth Southgate, either.
Iceland and the night of misery in Nice that June was still fresh. The players who were involved in that shambolic exit from the Euros will never forget the fury that rained down on them after that 2-1 defeat and were wary of what would greet them at Wembley. Southgate, also, was unsure of what to expect.
October 2016 was supposed to be the month Sam Allardyce made his debut in the home dugout, but his stupidity meant he became the second man to lose the highest managerial position in English football in the space of 14 weeks.
England were in a mess in 2016 having been humiliated by Iceland in defeat at the Euros
Gareth Southgate (left) took over after a newspaper sting saw Sam Allardyce (right) axed
The FA are accustomed to dealing with storms but this chaos was different. Why should England ever be taken seriously? They couldn’t keep their house in order, the players couldn’t deal with seemingly inferior opponents. World Cup semi-finalists and Euros finalists within five years? Forget it.
On October 8, 2016, the task was simply to beat Malta. Southgate – caretaker, initially, for four games – wasn’t even sure how long he would be in situ. One thing for certain, though, was the fact he was ready. After Roy Hodgson had been jettisoned, Southgate made it clear he should not be considered as a potential replacement.
After Allardyce had been hurried through the exit door, having embarrassed himself and the FA in getting in a sting by The Daily Telegraph, Southgate decided the moment was right to step up for his country. The opportunity, he knew, may never come again.
‘One of the key things for me is how it affects my family,’ said Southgate, at his first press conference. ‘They are ready for that. My wife (Alison) has been through the whole door-stepping scenario. We’ve lived that one (after his missed penalty at Euro 96).
‘How it affects your children comes into your thinking but you try to prepare them as much as possible as well. I’m excited by the challenge. Do I feel I am the right person at this moment to do this role? Yes.’
He stepped forward from his job in the Under 21s into the position, and one of his first big decisions was to hand Jesse Lingard a debut. Southgate had counted on the Manchester United player through his spell in charge of the development squad.
Southgate’s first game in charge of the national team came at Wembley against Malta
Lingard’s promotion showed all young players there was a pathway, and his manager made the moment special by presenting him with his shirt.
‘I’ve been with England for many years,’ said Lingard. ‘I’ve seen camps change but, at the moment, the camps are some of the best. The togetherness and the team spirit, Gareth’s got us set up right.’
Those first 90 minutes were relatively trouble free. Malta were dispatched 2-0 but it wasn’t an enjoyable atmosphere. There was chuntering, many who had turned up at Wembley were ambivalent to Southgate and the big focus was on Wayne Rooney’s poor form.
Many had Southgate down as a ‘yes’ man, someone who would eschew the big decisions; three days later in Ljubljana, for another World Cup qualifier, Rooney was left out. Jordan Henderson was given the captaincy.
How would things have turned out, though, had a problematic game against Slovenia ended in defeat? England were poor that evening and it was only for the fact that Joe Hart made what he believes was the best save in his career from Jasmin Kurtic that they were able to pilfer a point.
He transformed the culture and playing style as he took them to a World Cup semi-final in 2018
Fans are watching an England team that they believe in and Southgate has been key to that
‘It was like an out of body experience,’ Hart told Sportsmail.
‘I made the first save but when I was still in the air, I managed to get my hand to the rebound. I landed on the post and my body went into shock.
‘I collapsed on the floor, didn’t really know what had happened so the doctor ran on.
‘They did the concussion test on me and I started to feel a bit better. They said, “Do you know what has just gone on?” I said, “Yeah… I’ve just made a f***ing worldie!” They looked over to Gareth and said, “Yeah, he’s all right!”‘
So, too, was Southgate. We all know about the headline moments in the last five years, the run to the World Cup semi-finals and the surge to the Euros final this summer, but there have been many significant points in between that.
The campaign in Russia, he felt, was critical in breaking through some key barriers in terms of the players believing they deserved to be on such a big stage.
He masterminded a run to the final of Euro 2020 where England were beaten on penalties
Southgate doesn’t get every decision right but in five years he has revolutionised the squad
What happens over the next 14 months is unknown – Southgate will not enter into talks about a new contract until the middle of November, after a trip to San Marino, at the earliest – but what has changed over the last five years is that England now look like a proper team.
True, he doesn’t get every decision right – name a manager who does – but the England you will watch over the next five days is light-years away from the England we saw five years ago. That, most certainly, is down to one man.
‘We have some good staff with some good opinions,’ said Steve Holland, his long-serving assistant. ‘Gareth in the end is the guy that has to accept the full responsibility, he knows what comes with that. He makes the final call.’
And, on many occasions since October 8, 2016, the final call has been right.
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