Bold Gareth Southgate is restoring pride into playing for England

Andy Dillon by Andy Dillon / 27 March 2018, 12:19

GARETH SOUTHGATE had a beard long before the hipsters arrived so let’s dispel that crazy notion straightaway.

And while England’s lucid, intelligent, respectful manager may come across as mild-mannered and slightly nerdy, the truth could not be more different.

At just 47 Southgate is just a year older than Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham but has a far bigger job on his hands trying to turn our national football team into something of a force on the field of play.

Behind the considered words lies a formidable element of steel in Southgate’s approach to England and it is just what the squad needs.

International football in this country has been dwarfed by the goliath of the Premier League for at least ten years and attempting to drag it out of the shadows of cash-rich club football is a massive task.

While it is too early to get even the remotest bit carried away by a 1-0 win in a friendly in Holland last Friday, behind the scenes there is a definite sense that Southgate is beginning to get his message across.

Bold in his team selection, ruthless in his dealings with players who aren’t up to it, Southgate is clear in his objectives with the courage of his convictions.

There was a time when the tiny, elite band of players at the Premier League’s top clubs would turn their noses up at the prospect of playing for their country.

Egged on by often foreign and calculating foreign managers, the slightest injury would be enough to trigger a withdrawal as a precaution to keep the gravy train of Champions League competition secure.

Not so anymore. With his clinical dismissal of Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill, Theo Walcott and skipper Wayne Rooney, there is no longer a sense that England is always going to be there for players if and when they want to represent their country.

There is no suggestion any of those four weren’t loyal to the cause but there’s a clear message behind the move that England is bigger than any player and not the other way round.

England Under-19 pair Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho found out the hard way by being dropped for a Euro 2018 game against Latvia after rocking up late for training. England won without them. That’s something to ponder. And the hardline message comes from the top.

Southgate is middle-class in an industry dominated by council estate kids which makes it a tough arena. He grew up quickly in a riotous Crystal Palace dressing room presided over by the likes of Eric Young and Andy Thorn in the infamous ‘Wright and Bright’ era.

He went on to become captain of the club and at Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, displaying surefire leadership qualities which stand him in good stead today in dealing with egos, stupidity and surliness in the dressing room, of which there is more than enough to go around in English football.

The only problem Southgate faces is that he is inheriting an England team bled dry by the influx of swarthy, sophisticated overseas talent in the first teams at many of its best clubs.

While it is refreshing for us romantics to see players from Burnley, Swansea, West Bromwich Albion in the squad for last week’s and tonight’s game against Italy, any coach would prefer a roster of stars who regularly pit themselves against the best players in the world – even for a friendly.

That’s not his fault and Southgate can’t dictate how English clubs spend their vast piles of money in the transfer window.

What he can do is get into the minds of the players who do come to him for England duty that they are part of his project and that they can buy into it, or get out and stay out. There is a feeling that the England manager is no longer going cap in hand to multi-millionaire stars to beg for their time.

That doesn’t mean England will win this summer’s World Cup – far from it. But at least it means we have a bunch of triers out there who may lose but will do so with dignity and more importantly humility.


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