11
Jul
21

Leading by example

England aren’t only in the final of the European Championship for the first time ever, but they have been led there in style by a man who oozes class… (日本語版)

England fans aren’t used to this.

There is always hype ahead of international tournaments, always optimism that this could be the team that achieves glory, that football will finally be ‘coming home’.

Then the players ‘fall short’ – or, more accurately, make it about as far as their quality can carry them – and the recriminations begin, blame is apportioned, scapegoats are made, and the cycle continues.

Since Gareth Southgate became England manager, however, that narrative has started to change, and this is very much a team carved in his image.

The former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Middlesbrough player originally joined the Football Association as head of elite development at the start of 2011, before being appointed Under-21 head coach in August 2013 –  during which time he worked with several of the squad now at this summer’s European Championship, including Jordan Pickford, John Stones, and Harry Kane. 

Southgate initially ruled himself out of the running for the full England job after Roy Hodgson departed following Euro 2016, only to then reluctantly take over on an interim basis when Sam Allardyce was forced to step down after a scandal in September 2016. He immediately impressed in charge of the Three Lions, however, not only with the results he delivered on the pitch but also the manner in which he carried himself off it, and his contract was made permanent a couple of months later.

Always composed and respectful, Southgate has earned praise for his dignity and erudition during a time of division and conflict in England – whether because of Brexit, social justice protests, or Covid-19 – all while guiding England to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and now this weekend’s Euro 2020 final against Italy.

“The standard of leaders in this country in the last couple of years has been poor,” former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, now a television pundit, said after England’s 2-1 win over Denmark on Wednesday night. “Looking at that man there, that’s everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic, Gareth Southgate. He really is unbelievable, and has done a great job.”

The conduct of the manager has also shone through in that of the players too, and this is one of the most united and likeable England teams in recent memory. All too often in the past players were assured of their places on account of their reputations, and while undoubtedly talented individuals the star names never seemed like they were capable of gelling to form a team worth as much as the sum of its parts.

Southgate’s interpersonal skills have enabled him to avoid any such issues, however, and while the general public have been crying out for him to give more starts to the likes of Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho, the players themselves seem fully understanding of their manager’s decisions.

“I see some stuff sometimes about me and Gareth but we have a great relationship,” Grealish said before the quarter-final against Ukraine. “He does with all the players. He’s a brilliant man-manager.

“You have got six players that play either side of Harry [Kane] that, in reality, could play for most clubs in the world. Myself, Jadon [Sancho], Marcus [Rashford], Raheem, Phil Foden and Bukayo [Saka]. It’s scary how good us six are. That’s not being big-headed or nothing. That is just the truth.

“He can’t play all six of us but one thing he’s done really well is make people think that they are still involved. He still speaks to everyone on a daily basis.”

As well as maintaining positive relations within the camp, Southgate has also been eloquent and firm when dealing with issues swirling around the team, including their decision to take a knee before games in order to highlight racial inequality and discrimination. There were audible boos from some sections of the crowd as they did so ahead of the pre-tournament friendly win over Austria in Middlesbrough at the start of June, for instance, and instead of avoiding the matter the manager instead approached it head on.

“I was pleased it was drowned out by the majority of the crowd but we can’t deny it happened,” he said.

“It’s not something on behalf of our black players that I wanted to hear because it feels as though it is a criticism of them. I think the most important thing for our players to know is that all their team-mates and all the staff are fully supportive.”

Sections of the England support – including some portions of the media – continue to detract slightly from the enjoyment of following the national team, whether as a result of their arrogance, the booing of opponents’ national anthems, or other jingoistic behaviour, and the fact that Southgate has managed to stay true to himself and his beliefs in the face of such things and still deliver results on the pitch is worthy of huge credit.

“He is such a fundamentally decent man, but so exposed also to anger and hostility, it is easy to fear that this might finally get to him,” Barney Ronay wrote of the 50-year-old after England beat Germany in the Round of 16. “Most of the time he sounds like the last sensible person left in the country.”

For all the entitlement that gets attached to the refrain ‘football’s coming home’ these days, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the song was originally written as a tongue-in-cheek treatise on the disappointment football fans experience ninety percent of the time. Whether Southgate – whose missed semi-final penalty against Germany is inextricably tied up with the Euro 96 tournament for which the song was released – is able to deliver one of the rare occasions when England fans are able to celebrate remains to be seen. Win or lose against Italy, however, his efforts at bringing them to this point, and the manner in which he has done so, deserve nothing but praise.


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