There was a time when England manager Gareth Southgate was being touted for a knighthood. Shops were sold out of waistcoats, the sun was shining and you couldn't sit in a pub garden without hearing an alternate version of an Atomic Kitten classic dedicated to the Three Lions boss.
Some seven years on, an infamous Batman quote comes to mind about Southgate: something along the lines of staying in the job long enough to become a villain instead of bowing out a hero sooner. No way has public opinion unanimously swayed on the former defender – but it's in danger of heading that way in the next 12 months.
The England managerial job is always on a knife-edge. You live or die by your calls – and Southgate is making several bold ones which are polarising the nation. So let's look at the common criticisms that fans have about Southgate and whether they're fair. Do you agree?
Gareth Southgate refuses to move on from Harry Maguire in his England backline…
Perhaps the biggest stick that England fans have to beat the manager with. Harry Maguire is a confidence-shot last resort for his club and seemingly the first name on the team sheet for England.
Southgate may argue that Maguire has never let England down. That's a fair assessment – and the defender has been solid for his country at three major international tournaments, now. The counter-argument is, of course, that there are better options within the squad now – certainly options who are playing at a higher level every week and players who deserve their chance to prove themselves.
OK, if it's just Maguire getting picked despite his lack of domestic action, perhaps fans can give Southgate the benefit of the doubt. Except…
…Southgate has stuck by Jordan Henderson, too – raising questions not just about "picking on form" but what this team really stands for
This is an England squad that has championed inclusivity and diversity. Southgate's England are a bunch of socially conscious people, aside from their footballing ability, with the likes of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and, well, Jordan Henderson all speaking out about political issues.
So it came across as somewhat tone-deaf for Southgate to claim it "logic-defying" for fans to boo Henderson's first appearance back in England after his controversial Saudi Arabian move. It's very understandable for fans – and an England manager in touch with them should recognise that. It's easy to see how he may have lost a few of them through that statement.
But regardless of the morality around Henderson's move though, from a footballing perspective, picking Henderson raises another issue: why should he still be picked for his country when he isn't playing football at a high enough level? Is he going to be anywhere near ready for the level of Euro 2024 after a season at Al-Ettifaq?
Southgate effectively confirms Alexander-Arnold left out because of form and competition for places. Similar for White.March 16, 2023
It's Maguire and Henderson, who are debatable picks, then – plus Kalvin Phillips who isn't playing for Manchester City, while Kieran Trippier has been crowbarred out of position on the left, since he's trusted there. In the past, it's been Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady, who perhaps would still be fixtures in this team if one wasn't out with a long-term injury and the other in the Championship.
It's easy enough to make a case for all of them being key figures in Southgate's side for their leadership… but it's also a point of contention for England fans who want to see club form rewarded. The bottom line is that Southgate can't win, in some cases, as he looks to balance between picking on form and picking who's best for the team. We're all going to have our opinions: no one's wrong, no one's right… unless the man picking the team wins the games convincingly, of course. Which brings us onto…
Southgate has capitulated tactically in the biggest moments
Gareth Southgate has exited three international tournaments in knockout games and made the same mistake in all three. Against Croatia in 2018, Italy in 2021 and France in 2022, the England manager sat back on what he had instead of switching things up with his bench.
Admittedly, England perhaps scored too early in the first two but they managed both games poorly – and taking off Bukayo Saka against France when he was terrorising their backline felt like a huge missed opportunity even at the time. Southgate can't control the lottery of penalties or the quality of the opposition to come back into fixtures but some are concerned that his in-game management isn't good enough to triumph in those huge games.
Those who claim that Southgate will "never win a major tournament" are being unbelievably harsh: England were within penalties of one, for a start. He's certainly as good as most managers in international football – certainly better than a lot of tournament-winning coaches, too – but the longer the wait goes on, the more his mistakes are put under the microscope.
But most of all, the style isn't inspiring
Scoring goals hides a multitude of sins. England have a wealth of attacking talent at their fingertips… yet are only beating the likes of Australia 1-0. Portugal have won all seven Euro 2024 qualifying fixtures by an aggregate of 27-2. That's what we expect from a midfield of Foden, Rice and Bellingham behind Saka, Kane and Grealish… right?
Well, yeah. And no. Southgate has studied the winners and actually, it's better to be conservative. With that, however, comes the underlying panic from fans that England's greatest crop of players for 20 years are being wasted by a man who wants to keep the handbrake on. It probably doesn't help that Southgate is calm in his demeanour and sensible on the touchline: it all adds up to a bigger picture of England looking and feeling underwhelming.
Again, that's not exactly a fair conclusion, though. England started the World Cup last year with a battering of Iran, yet Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia. Who won the tournament? It's about stability and as England's most successful manager since 1966, it's just as easy to argue that Southgate has earned the right to play how he wants to. With Euro 2024 looking like his last tournament in charge, there's still plenty of time to win the fans back onside.
More England stories
As England took on Australia last week, FFT looked at the XI that the Three Lions put out in 2003 against the Socceroos and where they are 20 years later. One fan attended the friendly on Friday after falling "neck-deep" into a canal.
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1