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Thank you, Gareth Southgate: How a nation fell in love with a man who felt he had something to prove

Gareth Southgate
(Image credit: PA Images)

Oh Gareth, don’t let yourself get too carried away. On the floodlit turf at Wembley on Wednesday night, still warm from the embers of England’s dramatic victory over Denmark in the semi-final of Euro 2020, the Three Lions manager pottered across to the swaying England masses behind a goal and, well, let it all out. 

Teeth bared, fist pumping like an English antique shotgun, Southgate roared towards the packed stand. "Have some of that!" Once, twice, three times, and then - checking himself - he was back in the room. The England manager glanced around bashfully, swivelled on his heels and filed off towards the Wembley tunnel; only a hint of a smile still visible.

Southgate has had to learn to bottle up his emotions. Twenty-five years ago, his penalty miss against Germany in the semi-final of Euro 96 changed everything. Others could, and probably should, have stepped up instead of him. But it was Gareth who put his hand up – and it’s he who has to live with the consequences of that decision.

Gareth Southgate

(Image credit: PA Images)

Death threats represented the peak of anti-Gareth sentiment across the nation, though the jeering, the hatred - the ill-conceived Pizza Hut ads - must have hurt him almost as much. Yet in lamentably stiff-upper-lip-English-fashion, the Aston Villa captain simply carried on, never letting his tormentors see his agony.

There had been a sense, though, that Southgate might have been letting his guard down even before Euro 2020 kicked off. An open letter to England fans ahead of the tournament - simply titled “Dear England” and published on The Players’ Tribune - saw the 50-year-old recall stories from his childhood.

Rushing home from school each day to fill out his World Cup wall chart in the summer of 1982, a young Southgate dreamed of one day pulling on that famous white shirt adorned with three lions. Southgate’s grandfather, a veteran of World War II, was his inspiration; a man who literally fought for his country. The "Dear England" article provided a rare glimpse into the manager’s deeper psyche. 

We saw another layer peeled back after the last-16 win against Germany. While 60,000 fans sang Sweet Caroline into the balmy night sky, England’s manager explained how even winning the Euros couldn’t make up for his penalty blunder a quarter of a century ago. How could it, he asked, when his old teammates would never get their chance again? By this stage the M&S waistcoat was long gone: this was Gareth laid bare.  

Like a group of Victorian schoolboys leering over a smutty poster of a woman’s ankle, England supporters have drooled over these rare moments of tenderness. Alan Shearer penned his own open letter to Southgate after the Germany win, informing his former team-mate that “not one atom in my body could ever see you as a failure”. For crying out loud, lads, pass the tissues.

Whatever heartache Southgate still carries with him; whatever his personal view on his own tale of redemption, it’s not a question to the rest of us anymore. Southgate redeemed himself already with his brilliant work with the England U21 side between 2013 and 2016. He did it again when he led the England men's team to their first semi-final in 23 years at the World Cup in Russia. 

He did it when he recalled Jesse Lingard – a player who had recently suffered with mental health issues - for his pre-tournament friendlies this year. He did it when he wrote about stamping out racism in our country – “Unfortunately for those people that engage in that kind of behaviour, I have some bad news: You’re on the losing side” – and when he insisted that our strengths as a nation are often our differences. We are England. We are every nation and every person that has contributed to that. 

Of course, beneath all the fundamental goodness and sensibility – and crucially for England’s chances this summer – Southgate has proved himself a competent football manager too. Whether it’s been the controversial switch to a back-three against Germany; sticking by much-maligned goalkeeper Jordan Pickford or Raheem Sterling; giving Bukayo Saka a run in the side. He’s not put a foot wrong yet. 

Southgate has built a team – with an emphasis on that final word. The greatest example of this feat might be Jack Grealish’s response to being substituted during extra-time against Denmark on Wednesday night. The Aston Villa forward was brought on earlier in the match and was crucial in getting England back in front. As Southgate attempted to explain the potentially humiliating move, Grealish cut him short. “Gaffer, I’m not bothered,” he said. “We’re in the final!”

Whether England actually go on to beat Italy almost seems a moot point now. Whether it’s beer showers at Boxpark, tense evenings spent with loved ones on the sofa or 60,000 Neil Diamonds beneath the Wembley arch, football has already come home this summer. The demons have been laid to rest. All is forgiven. Perhaps it’s only Gareth that needs to see that now. 

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