Gareth Southgate has proved himself as a superb leader in taking England to successive major tournament semi-finals. But what makes him tick? Telegraph Sport looks at the six core elements that make the England manager the man he is.
The front man
Gareth Southgate has never hidden. He occasionally refers to himself as the “front man” for England – not out of arrogance, but as an acceptance that he is the public face of English football, and must take responsibility when things go awry. It was an attitude which permeated his time in club football.
When he was captain at Aston Villa the other players were impressed that Southgate would speak to the media after a defeat but was reluctant to do so in victory. At Middlesbrough Ben Gibson, then a fan and the nephew of owner Steve Gibson before becoming a player, was taken by Southgate’s desire to lead.
“Every time we had a big win he’d punch his fists to each of the three home stands,” Gibson says. “People used to wait just to see that. He epitomised everything the town is about: hard work, fight to the end.”
His former Crystal Palace team-mate Bobby Bowry concurs: “He set the tone. He was one of those in pre-season who, mentally, thought he could beat the most natural runners in the team. He’d try and take them on, racing them.” Southgate – who captained all three clubs he represented – has even joked about being the last one to leave the bar on a players’ night out as he felt it was important to be at the forefront of things.
The human touch
Southgate’s final act before heading to Rome last Friday afternoon for England’s quarter-final tie against Ukraine was to record a video message for those staff left behind at St George’s Park. Because of Covid restrictions, England could only take a skeleton staff and he did not want those not travelling to feel left out.
It was typical of Southgate’s natural empathy, as were the personal messages he wrote for each staff member during the Russia World Cup. “There are lots of conversations, lots of texts, lots of phone calls,” Harry Maguire says.
Southgate even tells the players that they need to treat everyone in the England camp exactly the same way – from manager to the kit man to hotel workers – and that is also because, as manager, he has two teams to manage: the players and the staff.
Southgate speaks with Harry Maguire and Harry Kane
Southgate takes a deep interest in both. Meal times are critical. Southgate not only believes in the old adage that “an army marches on its stomach” but has cancelled staff meetings which have been scheduled to overlap with meal times because it deprives him of the opportunity to sit and talk to a player or staff member. It is more informal and relaxed than calling them to his office.
Southgate has spoken of it being the one time in the day when everyone is together and that extends to his own family: he likes to ensure that his whole family – wife, Alison, and children Mia, 19, and Flynn, 15 – eat together when at home in Harrogate, north Yorkshire. Southgate has a series of non-negotiables. Time-keeping is one – especially for team meetings – and acknowledging a team-mate who replaces a player as a substitute is another.
When the England players and staff sing the national anthem no-one belts it out as loudly – although not necessarily in tune – as Southgate. He is extremely patriotic, and always has been. It stems from his family – his grandfather on his mother’s side, Arthur Toll, had been in the Royal Marines and never lost his military ways.
He got up at 5.30am and when Gareth was with him – the family would often descend on the Tolls home in Watford at Christmas – he would copy his routine. Arthur would dress immaculately: polished shoes, shirt and tie – and all this to walk into town. Manners mattered and Arthur, above all, was proud to be English and passed this on.
“My sense of identity and values is closely tied to my family and particularly my granddad,” Southgate says. “He was a fierce patriot and a proud military man, who served during World War II. The idea of representing ‘Queen and country’ has always been important to me.” Southgate also has a profound grasp of what being English means now.
(L-R) Gareth Southgate, Steve Holland, Graeme Jones and Chris Powell stand to sing the national anthem
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
He wants to share the stories of the young players, from diverse backgrounds, and the journeys they have made. He has encouraged them to speak and be proud of their backgrounds, just as he is, and he understands the positive effect inclusivity can have on society. A modern, successful England team can help in what has often felt like a fragmented country.
“In England we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost about what our modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us,” Southgate says.
“Gareth was like a sponge when he was younger,” says Geoff Thomas, the club captain at Crystal Palace when Southgate was coming through the youth system. That desire to learn has never changed. He is obsessed by continual improvement and is not the kind of leader who refuses to listen to others.
His assistant, Steve Holland, speaks at half-time, which was a lesson Southgate learnt when Terry Venables was England manager and had the humility to defer to his coach Don Howe. There have been less impressive examples of leadership that Southgate has not followed.
He is a devotee of podcasts and books – a particular favourite is “Sapiens”, the self-styled ‘brief history of humankind’ – and he even referred to senior England players as “tribal elders”.
Southgate has talked about spending two days studying how the Mercedes Formula One team works as a guest of Toto Wolff. This included being in on a pre-race briefing with Lewis Hamilton. He is also part of an elite coaches WhatsApp group along with England rugby union coach Eddie Jones, Arsene Wenger and Sir Dave Brailsford, and he has also made a point of tapping up the likes of Ed Smith, the former England cricket selector, and England hockey coach Danny Kerry for coaching advice.
The forum is designed to exchange ideas, with Southgate particularly taken by how powerful the harmony of Wales’ squad during Euro 2016 – he is friends with and a former Palace team-mate of their former coach Chris Coleman – was involved in the hiring of the former Wales head of performance Ian Mitchell. Another big influence is Owen Eastwood, the New Zealand culture guru.
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The hard edge
Southgate once missed out on a club coaching job because he was deemed too polite; too much of a nice bloke; always shaking everyone’s hand. It was a fundamental misreading of him, as was the nickname given to him at Palace – ‘Nord’, a reference to his polite way of speaking, which reminded the club’s then first-team coach Wally Downes of the veteran TV presenter Denis Norden.
But Southgate – rejected by Southampton at 14 – has a hard edge. “For Gareth to be around the game for as long as he has been he must have that (nasty) streak to him,” says Roy Keane, who once stamped on Southgate’s chest during an FA Cup semi-final because he thought the former defender had tried to break his leg in a tackle.
Southgate proved himself in a Palace dressing room full of forceful characters and by 22 he had succeeded Andy Thorn – a former member of the Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’ – as club captain.
Although Southgate always insisted he was no “fighter” there are stories of him getting into physical confrontations with team-mates he felt were not showing requisite effort. As Thomas puts it, "He knew how to handle himself.” That ruthlessness extended to managing his own career.
He submitted a transfer request to Aston Villa just before he was due to meet up with the England squad at Euro 2000, and has spoken of how his brain was “scarred” by his time as Middlesbrough manager.
He is determined to go back into club management when he leaves England, partly to prove his critics wrong. Southgate has spoken of how “ability gets you into the room” but it is mentality that determines how far a player goes. And he has not shrunk from a series of tough decisions with England, refusing to buckle to “outside noise”.
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The WhatsApp message from Gareth Southgate was clear. “Whatever happens in the coming weeks I will try and retain that,” he wrote before the European Championship started. The “that” Southgate was referring to is what he terms “authenticity”.
It is, for him, the most important quality of all, and he has spoken in the past about how people can “smell" those who are not genuine "a mile off”. Having described himself as an introvert Southgate spends a lot of time asking questions and trying to find out about the people he is talking to and working with.
“I manage in a way that’s authentic to me,” Southgate says. “I think it’s crucial to have an understanding of what the world is like for the people who are working with you.”
It is why listening to the players over taking the knee was so important and why Southgate agonised over whether his response to racist incidents has been sufficient. He was very upset by accusations that he should have led the players off the pitch after an episode in Montenegro in 2019. That authenticity is also about honesty.
When Southgate submitted his transfer request at Villa he also resigned the captaincy as he did not want to be “hypocritical”. He also talks about “agreed integrity” in the way he works. There is clearly a high emotional intelligence at the heart of his work but while Southgate is also not afraid to reveal personal vulnerability, he also has that most crucial of attributes in a stressful job: a sense of humour.