Gareth Southgate sat across the table from Keith Lamb, and his anger was increasing with every word he heard. The night before, Middlesbrough had beaten Derby at the Riverside Stadium. An hour after the final whistle, Southgate had been sacked as the club’s manager.
When he met chairman Steve Gibson in the boardroom, following a celebratory drink with his staff, he pondered whether it was a good time to ask for a striker on loan. Then Gibson broke the news. Despite that 2-0 victory against the Rams in October 2009, Southgate was out. “I didn’t have the slightest inkling I was in trouble,” he later said. “I was too stunned to mount a defence.”
Instead, he went home and sat alone until 3am, trying to process it all as he compiled a list of items that he needed to return to the club, methodical to the last. “You haven’t been sacked, have you?” his wife joked when she ventured downstairs to learn why he wasn’t in bed. “Yes,” he replied. “I have.”
If Southgate had been too shocked to fight his corner after hearing the news, things were different when he visited the training ground the next day and spoke to Middlesbrough’s chief executive.
In an attempt to explain the timing of the decision, Lamb revealed that he had interviewed Gordon Strachan a couple of weeks earlier. Having presided over Boro’s relegation from the top flight, Southgate was supposed to be sacked after a Championship fixture at Reading. But they won 2-0 and Gibson hadn’t had the heart to do it.
“Keith was lucky I’m calmer than some managers, as they might have taken a swing at him,” said Southgate. “It was an awkward meeting,” confessed Lamb. “I wasn’t surprised to read that quote about wanting to hit me. He felt it was the wrong decision and let me know in no uncertain terms. He didn’t want to be seen as a failure for the first time in his life.”
For seven long years, it seemed like that might be Southgate’s one and only job in senior football: the end of his managerial career at the highest level. Yet on July 7, 2018, he stood in the middle of a pitch in the Russian city of Samara, conducting England supporters in song and celebrating taking his country to the World Cup semi-finals.
Far from a failure, he was now a national hero. After the way things had ended at Middlesbrough, he always knew he had a point to prove.
Setting the stall
At the age of 35, Southgate had been a surprise appointment as Boro boss in the summer of 2006.
Martin O’Neill and Terry Venables had both turned down the chance to succeed Steve McClaren following his exit to lead England. Despite Southgate being the only skipper to lift a major trophy for Boro, many fans wanted local hero Tony Mowbray, then impressing at Hibernian.
“It was a surprise when he became manager, but he’d been my captain when I was a young lad and everyone respected him,” David Wheater tells FourFourTwo, having been part of that Middlesbrough squad at the time.
“I remember being 16 and doing something wrong in the gym, but he didn’t shout at me – he just had a quiet word in the dressing room, which I thought was a very good way of handling things. He was so calm and collected, but you would never want to do anything wrong – he had an aura about him. Everyone knew him as ‘Gate’, though. It was weird to start calling him ‘gaffer’.”
When long-time team-mate Ray Parlour jokingly asked whether he could call Southgate ‘Big Nose’ instead, the new manager wasn’t too impressed. Already a bit-part player, Parlour didn’t play for Boro again.
A lack of coaching qualifications meant Southgate required special dispensation from the Premier League to take on his new role. He soon began his coaching courses but had to learn the hard way: on the job.
Middlesbrough improved their league position in his first season in charge, moving up two spots from the 14th-placed finish in McClaren’s final campaign at the Riverside.
A year later they finished 13th, thrashing Manchester City 8-1 on the final day thanks to Afonso Alves’s hat-trick. However, the Brazilian had otherwise been a £12.5 million flop, with the manager’s acquisitions not proving particularly successful. Mido didn’t find his best form after joining from Spurs, and admits now that he and some senior players had reservations about Southgate.
“The players liked him, but they knew he couldn’t handle that job being his first,” the Egyptian tells FFT. “Players are smart and they can feel those kinds of things. Sometimes he would panic a little bit during games – he didn’t know how to manage the team and that was quite a difficult moment for him.
“But he was a nice man. It’s not easy to retire and then the next day having to manage all of your team-mates. Yesterday you were their team-mate and now you have to find the right balance between being a manager and a friend.
“He was unlucky because the chairman chose to reduce the budget and let go of big players like Yakubu and Mark Viduka. He was young and had to work on a low budget, with no managerial experience – it was unfair. It was his first managerial job and I think he’s developed a lot since then.”
As Jonathan Woodgate, Mark Schwarzer and George Boateng left Teesside for Tottenham, Fulham and Hull respectively, the squad grew short of leaders. So Southgate placed his trust in a promising group of youngsters who were emerging from the club’s academy.
“He gave us a chance,” says Wheater. “Steve McClaren gave me my debut, but Southgate was the one who put me in and stuck with me. Later he gave me the captaincy, too. I probably wasn’t ready for it at 20 or 21, but he showed faith in me and I wanted to repay him.”
Southgate was named Premier League Manager of the Month after Boro kicked off 2008/09 by beating Spurs and Stoke, and only losing at Liverpool late on. But they soon started to struggle badly for goals. A 14-match winless run plunged Boro into relegation danger and they never recovered. They scored just 28 goals all season, and their 11-year stay in the top flight was over.
They started well in the Championship – winning five of their opening seven league games – but then West Bromwich Albion won 5-0 at the Riverside in mid-September. It was the first of three home defeats on the spin as crowds dwindled and boos increased. Strachan was lined up and Southgate was shown the door, despite that win over Derby leaving them 4th in the table, one point off top spot. Under Strachan, Boro would finish 11th.
“It was a surprise for all of the lads when he got sacked,” remembers Wheater. “A few of us had gone to a bar after the Derby match, and he rang me to tell me he’d lost his job. As a senior player, he thought I should know. It was a shock – I didn’t really know what to say. Later he sent me a hand-written letter wishing me luck, saying I’d go far if I did things right. It was quite a long letter and was a lovely gesture.”
Now armed with a UEFA Pro Licence and three-and-a-half years of experience, Southgate hoped his next job in management would be different. There was a problem, though: no one would give him that next job. When he applied for vacancies at Championship clubs, often he wouldn’t even receive a reply.
He joined the FA as their head of elite development, looking towards a long-term future in an administrative role. He excelled so much that within a year he was a leading candidate to become the FA’s maiden technical director, only to rule himself out of contention, wary of again taking on a job he didn’t feel experienced enough to fulfil.
Southgate left the FA, realising he wasn’t prepared to give up on the managerial career path he’d embarked upon at Boro.
When the Sheffield United seat became available in 2013, Gareth threw his hat into the ring. He knew some of the Blades’ directors – their kids went to the same school as his – and the interview seemed to go well. He was devastated, then, when the board opted for David Weir instead, so asked a friend to enquire why he’d been overlooked.
The feedback left him aghast. The club had decided he was just too nice – directors said that when he dropped his children off at school, he would make a point of saying hello to the other parents. “What am I supposed to do, tell my kids to f**k off out of the car and drive off?” he responded.
One man’s pain
Southgate’s big break came in the same way that his tenure at Boro ended: with a man sat across a table from his employers, dismayed that he was being relieved of his duties despite winning his last game. This time the man getting the heave-ho was Sam Allardyce, albeit for very different reasons.
Suddenly, Southgate found himself as the most unlikely England manager in history: he didn’t want the job and half the country didn’t particularly want him either. One national paper ran a poll asking how readers felt about him becoming caretaker boss. The possible answers included ‘Don’t care - I’ve given up on England’ and ‘God help us all’.
He’d returned to the FA as England Under-21 boss in 2013, though results hadn’t been eye-catching enough to convince everyone that he was ready for the top job.
There were signs of promise, however – signs that younger players were responding to his management and possession-based approach. Perhaps remembering the awkwardness of players calling him ‘gaffer’ at Middlesbrough, he made no such insistence this time.
“Everyone called him Gareth rather than gaffer,” admits goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, in the U21 squad at that time. “We all liked him. From the very start he wanted to be bold and do things a bit differently – to play out from the back, more of a European style. Everyone bought into it.
“The thing I was amazed by was how close everyone was. It didn’t feel like a normal changing room – it was like being at school with your mates. Gareth created that. Lads who’d been in the U21s for years said it hadn’t been like that before – it was more detached. But we were constantly together – no one wanted to be inside their rooms. I’d look forward to those two weeks on international duty.”
Southgate’s management style didn’t immediately translate into tournament results, though: England went out in the group stage at the 2015 European Championship, losing to Portugal and Italy.
“We got too worried about results and went away from what we’d been developing in qualifying,” says Bond. “We lost our style of play, because we were worried about losing. However, it seems like Gareth learned from that. He’s detached from all of the pressure now and just focuses on performances, because they’ll bring results in the long term. At the World Cup, the team always tried to do the right things.
“When I watch England now, it’s basically that whole U21 setup: the same players, the same staff, physios and masseurs. For every player who’s stepped up to the senior team, it’ll all have been really familiar.”
As he had done at Middlesbrough, Southgate penned letters to all of his players after the tournament, thanking them for their efforts. “It meant a lot to me and my family,” says Bond.
A year later, Southgate’s U21s won the Toulon Tournament, Ruben Loftus-Cheek scoring the winner in the final against hosts France. By the time World Cup 2018 came around, 10 of Southgate’s senior squad had played for him in the U21s. Six of them – Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane – were in his first-choice starting XI. Trust had been built years earlier.
At the deep end
Southgate had been reluctant to leave the U21s. When Roy Hodgson quit after Euro 2016, he’d insisted he didn’t have enough experience to take caretaker charge of the senior team, again wary of a Boro repeat.
When Allardyce left, the FA had just five days before the next squad was selected, and Southgate had to step in. He quickly found himself enjoying the job and coping better than he expected.
Days after a 3-0 win over Scotland and a promising display in a 2-2 draw with Spain, he sat before an interview panel at St George’s Park – Greg Clarke, Martin Glenn, Dan Ashworth, Howard Wilkinson and Graeme Le Saux – and made his case to be appointed permanently. He not only earned the job, but sold a long-term vision to the panel. “I said, ‘He has to be in this job for six years minimum’,” Wilkinson later explained. “Gareth will get better and the players will get better.”
Southgate quickly set about building team spirit – taking the squad to a Royal Marines camp in Devon, where they handed in their smartphones and camped under the moonlight. The gaffer even showed he was willing to muck in, getting dunked in water during one of the drills.
On the field, he made tactical tweaks after World Cup qualification was confirmed – moving to three at the back when many managers might have thought it safer to use the system that got them to Russia.
Then came a trip to Minneapolis in February – a trip that would pay dividends at the World Cup in more ways than one. Southgate went to an NBA game and spoke to staff from the Minnesota Timberwolves, learning about basketball blocking moves. They were used to great effect as England scored nine goals from set-pieces at the World Cup, the most of any team at the tournament since 1966.
Southgate and the FA’s press team also took in the Super Bowl and pre-match media day, where every player from both sides was made available for interview. The manager had identified tension between players and press as an issue at previous major finals: when England trailed Iceland 2-1 at Euro 2016, Steven Gerrard admitted he’d spent the second half worrying about the media backlash if they lost. With thoughts like that swirling around players’ heads, the team froze.
“Sometimes the relationships between our guys and the media has been confrontational, and I don’t think it has to be that way,” stated Southgate. “The Super Bowl is more relaxed.”
So days before England departed for Russia, the press were invited to St George’s Park and the entire 23-man squad was made available for interview. “The press had been saying to the FA for years that they had to improve their relations,” Henry Winter, chief football writer for The Times, explains to FFT.
“There had been one or two people around the players who weren’t particularly helpful at previous tournaments, saying, ‘Don’t talk to the press’. But the more people you put up for interview, the less focus on one story there’ll be. You won’t get all of the guys saying, ‘Right, let’s have a big debate about Wayne Rooney’.
“The 23 players came in, and you could see they benefited from it. The FA had a clock and when it hit the 60-minute mark, the interviews were supposed to stop. But actually, a lot of the players hung around just chatting – even Sterling, who’d recently been in the papers over the gun tattoo story.
“It built trust between players and media, and altered the perception of a lot of the players with the public. Danny Rose revealed his issues with depression. If players had performed badly, there would still have been criticism, but if there’s human empathy there, fans will be much more understanding.”
The relaxed atmosphere continued once out in Russia, with families regularly allowed to visit the team hotel in Repino. To make his squad feel comfortable, Southgate didn’t just build strong relationships with the players themselves, but their relatives too. Everyone was made to feel part of the England family.
The same quality that had cost Southgate the Sheffield United job was now helping to create an environment in which the players could produce their best at a major tournament – finally.
Of course, things could have been a lot different had Harry Kane not nodded home a late winner in the opening game against Tunisia, but Southgate had prepared his players for every scenario, explaining how they should react if things weren’t going to plan.
Panic seemed to be the answer against Iceland in 2016: this time they calmly continued to play their possession game, plugging away until the winner eventually came.
There were no such problems against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod, when those NBA techniques – Ashley Young subtly blocked off John Stones’s marker for the opening goal – helped England storm to a 6-1 win. Southgate’s only worry had been how to do a fist pump with one arm, having dislocated his right shoulder while out running that week.
He’d calmly dealt with a potential problem before the game, though: a photographer snapping images of assistant Steve Holland holding a piece of paper, initially thought to contain the starting XI.
“It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, it was just a squad list,” insisted Southgate. “Of course, our media has to decide whether they want to help the team or not,” he added, his message delivered politely but firmly. He had helped the media with access to players, so didn’t want to see that thrown back in his face.
“He’s very respectful, but tough as well,” says Winter. “He completely sets the tone at press conferences, which is quite rare because usually the media try to set the tone for the manager.
“I think he would have been more concerned if we were talking about individual set-plays they were going to use, and there were a couple of occasions during the World Cup when we had information on that, but didn’t run it. There was just so much respect for Gareth.”
Southgate had built a rapport with the press over many years: they remembered how he’d bravely done interviews immediately after his penalty miss at Euro 96, and how he’d played cricket with them on the beach in Rimini before a match in San Marino during his punditry days.
His preparation has always been famously meticulous – as a player, he turned down the opportunity to travel with his team-mates to meet Nelson Mandela before a friendly in South Africa, to ensure he was prepared for the game. He scored after 36 seconds and England won.
In Russia, it would be penalties where Southgate’s attention to detail made the difference. Previous England managers opted not to bother preparing for a shootout, but Southgate remembered the pain of ’96 and did all he could to avoid the same fate befalling one of his squad.
When the time came against Colombia, Jordan Pickford had notes surreptitiously taped to a water bottle, allowing him to check before each penalty. Once he’d denied Carlos Bacca, it was down to Eric Dier to convert the winning spot-kick and end England’s hoodoo. “We’d been practising since we met up,” said Dier. “I felt confident.”
So what did Southgate say to his players in the dressing room after that historic victory? “Nothing,” said Kyle Walker. “He came in the next day and said he’d forgotten to talk to us afterwards because he was so full of emotion. He didn’t need to say anything. It was a big party.”
After another set-piece goal against Sweden, England were breezing into the World Cup semis for the first time since 1990. His post-match media duties done, Southgate ventured back onto the pitch and stood before the England fans still in the stadium, enjoying the moment.
It was one nobody would have predicted during a summer more successful than anyone may have dared hope.
Quietly and effectively, Southgate has navigated past the pitfalls that foiled previous England managers. Qualification for a major tournament? Achieved with ease. Off-field scandals? No chance. Problems with the press? Solved. Cliques in the dressing room? Not any more. Fear of penalties? Overcome. Stupid red cards? Not on his watch. Getting his squad to shine on the biggest stage? Absolutely. Build on a fantastic summer with success in the UEFA Nations League? Damn straight.
It took a long time to realise it, but in the end England didn’t need a manager with vast experience, or one with a track record of success at the top level.
To finally shine at a major tournament, they just needed a man who understood England’s problems and knew how to rectify them. A man who’d been sacked by Middlesbrough. A man who’d been overlooked by everyone. A man called Gareth Southgate.
Additional reporting: Marwan Saeed • This feature originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of FourFourTwo magazine
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