It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Gareth Southgate has emerged as such a consummate international manager it is easy to squint back through history and kid yourself this was the plan all along.
That when Roy Hodgson stepped aside after England’s ignominious exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, the mantle was immediately passed to Southgate, the likeable, well-regarded Under-21s coach with the underwhelming management record.
But of course it didn’t happen like that at all. Hodgson was instead replaced by Sam Allardyce, who saw his team beat Slovakia in their opening 2018 World Cup qualifier before falling victim to a newspaper sting and leaving by mutual consent after just two months in charge, the only 100 per cent record in the history of the England job being of little consolation.
Southgate, already in possession of a Football Association blazer and a fob for the car park at St George’s Park, was the obvious candidate to step in at short notice but it needed a four-match unbeaten run to convince his bosses at the FA to name him as Allardyce’s permanent successor.
Now, Southgate’s England are preparing to face Denmark in the semi-finals of the European Championship, having secured their place in the last-four of consecutive major tournaments for the first time since the world champions of 1966 managed the feat at the Euros in 1968.
From Sam Allardyce to the second coming of Sir Alf Ramsey in less than five years. How did it happen? Well, if it all came about as a bit of an accident, everything that has followed since has been by meticulous design.
The key to Southgate is this is a modest man who is never complacent enough to assume he has all the answers, which of course means he has more answers than anyone else.
A man who led England to a World Cup semi-final then asked what needed to change before his team could take the next step. The spine of that team; Pickford, Maguire, Stones, Henderson, Alli, Sterling and Kane is largely present this summer but there seems something deliberate in every decision, be it a show of faith or a modification.
Jordan Pickford was rested by Everton last season, Raheem Sterling found himself out of Manchester City’s side for the title run-in and Harry Kane turned up for the tournament but left his form at home. But none had previously let Southgate down and in return the manager stuck by all three.
Harry Maguire was not rushed back after injury, but nor did Southgate hesitate to pick him ahead of impressive understudy Tyrone Mings when he was ready to return from ankle ligament damage.
And yet Southgate can be ruthless. The emergence of Declan Rice and the unfashionable Kalvin Phillips has sent Jordan Henderson — a Champions League-winnng captain with Liverpool — to the bench.
Meanwhile 45 caps, an MBE and the thanks and appreciation of a nation have not been enough to get Marcus Rashford a start in this tournament.
Like many an Englishman, Southgate is perhaps cautious and defiant by nature, but also open to change and trying new things. Ruthless, and ready to take a risk.
Not many managers would have abandoned a defensive system which had yielded three clean sheets in three games for the last-16 tie with Germany but Southgate did, switching from a back four to a back three (or five, depending on your persuasion) to match up Joachim Low’s men.
If it hadn’t worked, the coach would have been pilloried. And if it hadn’t worked, England would also have lost, and that would have hurt Southgate more than any tabloid assassination.
England have a manager who does not listen to outside noise — be it about his reliance on two ‘defensive’ midfielders or his decision to start first Bukayo Saka and then Jadon Sancho in preference to Jack Grealish. While Sterling and Kane have been ever-present, the choice of the third of England’s three attacking players has been made with the specific opponents in mind. Maybe the players don’t like all those decisions, but they can trust their manager has not made them on the back of a quick scroll through Twitter.
Because Southgate is a player’s manager. After the anguish of his penalty miss at Euro 96, how could he be anything else? This approach extends to big-picture stuff like his unflinching stance in support of his squad taking the knee before games. But it also applies to the small details.
After the carefree way Ukraine were dispatched on Saturday, the manager could have got carried away but instead he used his post-match media obligations to praise the attitude of the non-playing members of his squad and reveal how much he agonised over leaving them out.
He also spoke of the pleasure he took from seeing youngsters like Jude Bellingham recognise the significance of Henderson’s first international goal and how they shared the joy of their ‘tribal elder’. But Southgate’s first, far more intimate post-match act was arguably more significant — embracing the unused Grealish within seconds of the final whistle. The words were private but it was easy to imagine they were an encouraging reminder that his chance to shine would come this week.
So now, back to London to face Denmark at Wembley, scene of the 1966 World Cup final, the Euro 96 penalty shoot-out and, more relevantly, scene of last week’s mood-altering triumph against Germany.
Southgate, the former caretaker his country only turned to in a crisis, has already overtaken Terry Venables and Sir Bobby Robson, who reached one semi-final apiece, in the ranks of great England managers.
Only Ramsey remains above him. Win tonight and Southgate will be one game away from personal redemption, one game from parity with the greatest Three Lions leader of all. He will tell you none of it is about him, it’s about the players. But none of it happens without his quiet work developing the players, the approach, the team and their culture. None of it has happened by accident, only by design.
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