Gentleman Gareth Southgate has emerged as a fiercely intelligent and strong leader

Chloe Beresford by Chloe Beresford / 04 July 2018, 11:19

Once bitten, twice shy, they say.

For England supporters these words had proven to be true, so often having raised their hopes only to be left bitterly disappointed, an accumulation of which came to a head with an awful performance in World Cup 2014 and an embarrassing exit to Iceland in the following Euros.

The dismal reign of Roy Hodgson marked a turning point for many, as those who had so passionately followed the Three Lions had decided that enough was enough, and never again would they allow themselves to feel that hurt that would inevitably follow on from perpetually misguided belief.

Gareth Southgate’s appointment as Coach following a brief but disastrous tenure for Sam Allardyce almost went unnoticed as enthusiasm for the national team had seemingly hit an all-time low. Yet this allowed the new boss to assemble his side without the levels of intense media scrutiny that had hampered the progress of so many of his predecessors, his rigorous preparation largely unharmed by those who had caused such damage in the past.

When the boss presented a young and enthusiastic squad before the World Cup began, many England fans and indeed the media took note of the fact that Southgate was ready to try something different. A fresh outlook was welcomed, and even the exclusion of previous number one Joe Hart was received in a much more open-minded way, not becoming a major incident as it would have been in previous years.

The very fact that expectations were low but that the general public were ready to give this side the benefit of the doubt gave the boss and his staff room to breathe. Then, as England kicked off their World Cup campaign, it was a surprise to many that the side looked so well-prepared, so perfectly rehearsed as they executed not only their set-pieces, but also their game plan with the kind of precision that had only been witnessed in the past from teams like Germany.

It soon became clear that this was down to Southgate, his meticulous mental and tactical preparations – including the study of other sports such as basketball in order to gain an advantage – having created a squad that seemed so much more close-knit than any of the England sides before them. Slowly but surely, enthusiasm returned as supporters watched the Three Lions emerge as a team that didn’t look like a typical England side at all.

Then, after 90 minutes versus Colombia, the unthinkable happened.

The thought of the “same old England” headlines was actually worse than the idea of a premature exit as Los Cafeteros equalised right at the death, because this wasn’t the same old England, even if the newspapers would’ve printed it regardless. As penalties approached, every supporter in the country had that feeling of dread, a World Cup shootout a national curse that this side had never once conquered.

As Jordan Henderson missed his spot-kick, it seemed to so many like history would once again repeat itself.

Only it didn’t.

When Jordan Pickford saved from Carlos Bacca, Eric Dier then converted the vital penalty to send England through to the quarter-finals, the hoodoo finally broken. It was no accident as from the darkest of events – when an unprepared Southgate missed the penalty in the semi-final of Euro ‘96 – came the start of a bright future for this side, the boss determined to ensure that no player under his guidance would go into a shoot-out without hours and hours of preparation and practice behind him.

Listening to the post-match interviews after such an euphoric win, phrases such as “creating their own stories”, “owning the process” and “resetting the mind” were used by the boss to describe how these players had been coached into ditching the negativity of the past. No matter how far this set of players can progress in the tournament this time around, it is clear that Southgate has smashed open a nut that had previously proved impossible to crack.

People may say “once bitten, twice shy”, but Gareth Southgate was bitten hard in 1996, yet has emerged as a fiercely intelligent and strong leader, one who has refused to let that pain define who he has become.

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