Gareth Southgate did not go to the 1994 World Cup. Neither did England but, even if they had qualified, he would not have been selected. He was a second-division footballer the previous season, captaining Crystal Palace to promotion. He went on holiday to Greece to Crete with friends. The day after six England-born players figured in the Republic of Ireland’s 1-0 win over Italy, his best friend’s girlfriend asked him if he had any Irish roots.
Southgate was irritated. He wanted to play for England. The grandson of a Royal Marine objected to the notion that, his only chance of international football might be to unearth an Irish relative. He would rather win no caps for England than one for anyone else. “Anna didn’t see Gareth as an England player,” wrote Andy Woodman, Southgate’s best man and a professional footballer himself, in Woody and Nord. “To be honest, neither of us did.”
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Two years later, Southgate was defending immaculately in Euro 96. Like his feat in taking England to the World Cup semi-finals, it suggests that even those who knew him best can be guilty of underestimating a mild-mannered man.
Yet Southgate’s reaction on that Greek beach 24 years ago, much like his emphatic celebration of Harry Kane’s winner against Tunisia or the way he returned to conduct the crowd in a chorus, long after the final whistle against Sweden, shows his politeness can mask a middle-class, provincial brand of patriotism. If big cities can be all-consuming, some from smaller towns, and Southgate was raised in Crawley, identify more with England.
At a time when others have hijacked patriotism to foment hatred of outsiders, in a sport where some England fans have dented the country’s reputation with chauvinism, xenophobia and violence, Southgate seems to have a brand of Marks and Spencer’s nationalism: inoffensive, aspiring to excellence, with a pride in where he comes from that does not encompass disrespectful and disparaging behaviour to others.
Without necessarily intending to, he has come to stand for something. The hashtag #GarethSouthgateWould was partly joking, but also reflected how the England manager seemed to speak for many who felt courteousness and consideration were going unrepresented.
And an eloquent man has tended to strike the right tone. He has become the antithesis of those with influence and, in some cases, power, who have nevertheless abdicated responsibility and who go around wilfully alienating foreigners in displays of pointless grandstanding, replacing diplomacy with boorishness in the knowledge that jingoism will attract a certain audience.
Southgate is a certain type of England supporter. It is impossible to imagine him singing songs about two World Wars or the IRA. Rather than believing outdated, discredited notions of inherited English superiority, he has instead sought to learn from the national team’s past mistakes.
England have rightly been branded entitled and arrogant in the past; yet when the former Sweden midfielder Hakan Mild echoed those sentiments this week, it was inaccurate. Southgate admitted England had underestimated Sweden for years but his side did not. Likewise, they practised penalties; England approached an age-old problem with professional, thoughtful rigour. The shift to 3-3-2-2 moved England as far away from witless 4-4-2 formations as possible.
Part of patriotism is to believe a country can be better, rather than to wallow in imagined visions of the past. Southgate has applied modern methods in a bid for improvement. It is the nature of football that values require results for any cultural makeover to succeed. He has got them. Southgate already ranks as England’s most successful manager since Terry Venables; perhaps, since Euro 96 was on home soil, since Sir Bobby Robson.
He stands as an indictment of predecessors. Some saw the England job as a chance to line their pockets. Others began with a supposition of success because they had good players. Steve McClaren had soundbites without substance, Sven-Goran Eriksson fostered a celebrity culture, Roy Hodgson seemed to downgrade England in a bid to lower expectations and Fabio Capello oversaw joyless mediocrity with dismal tactics, at least in the 2010 World Cup. Kevin Keegan brought gung-ho cluenessness, re-enacting the Charge of the Light Brigade without realising the Charge of the Light Brigade was a disaster.
The common denominator was that each oversaw teams who were less than the sum of their parts. They were either searching unsuccessfully for an identity or presiding over sides with the wrong kind of them. They were symptoms of a wider struggle.
The former American Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s 1962 quote that “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role” has felt increasingly true; certainly in England’s case, and frequently in English football’s case.
They had struggled to enjoy tournaments in the way that the Scandinavian and Celtic nations often do, supporting their team without needing the automatic assumption everyone else is automatically inferior. Now they have recaptured a feelgood factor that, with the exception of the excesses of the idiot fringe, seems influenced by Southgate’s rancour-free patriotism. It is a question of individual taste how funny the Three Lions memes and how endearing the choruses of “Football’s Coming Home” are, but they are essentially inoffensive optimism.
England has a team it relates to and, in particular, a manager it likes. Perhaps Southgate falls into the category of people normally described as the silent majority, overlooked because of their innate politeness in a world when those who scream loudest can be heard longest. But maybe many see their vision of Englishness in the man in the waistcoat.
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