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It started in a school field in the west of Middlesbrough, as veteran defender Gareth Southgate, then 35, told kids about the importance of sport.
Could Gareth Southgate be a manager?
It was a sunny Friday afternoon, May 5, 2006, when the Boro captain tentatively set in motion the coaching career that will peak in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley on Sunday.
“It's something I'd not even considered really until a fortnight ago, but I do want to coach and manage in the future," he said.
Steve McClaren had just been given the England job on the back of Boro's charge to the UEFA Cup final, and Southgate told me, and a colleague, of his new hope.
Gareth Southgate, the manager, takes charge of Middlesbrough
(Image: evening gazette)
“Whether the time is right I don't know,” he declared with modesty. A gentle throw of his hat into the ring.
“I know the chairman (Steve Gibson) will get it right and if that involves me, if I can help in any way, then fantastic. He might want someone more experienced and it might be the time for me to do what I'm told for once."
Southgate was given the job a month later, setting up a three year, four month apprenticeship in the hot seat that would harden him up, and accelerate his learning.
As Southgate stood next to those school gates 15 years ago, he said: "I think good managers listen to the opinion of senior players and the coaching staff around them.” Principles he's stuck to at St George's Park.
Gareth Southgate went from dressing room to head coach of Boro at 35, with no coaching experience, and learned quickly it was a tough job
Nearing the end of his playing days at Boro, there were clues he wanted much, much more from his career after serving Crystal Palace, Villa and Boro.
He spoke of six losing semi finals, two final appearances, one victory. Fifty-plus England caps, but transfers to elite clubs, and probably more trophies, that fell through.
“I'm deeply conscious of what I've not had," he said while discussing his book Woody and Nord, a Football Friendship at a North Yorkshire hotel.
"Mixing with players at international level deepened my lack of fulfilment. Because they played with Man United and won trophies didn't mean they were better than me.”
“My career ambitions may be unattainable, I may retire with regrets….” was his conclusion.
Well, maybe not…
Southgate has made some tough selection calls including the use of Jack Grealish
(Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
But it has been a bumpy journey, even considering his biggest worry about management. “Can you be a football manager and see your family grow up,” Southgate once asked.
When he was fired by Boro at midnight, after a 2-0 home win against Derby, while well-placed for a play off push, there was more time to spend with his kids and wife Alison.
He was out of the game for almost four years, studying teams, unsuccessfully applying for jobs, and working for ITV.
But it was lonely. He said during an England U21 meet up: “You find yourself out of work, under the wife’s feet and looking for a community. I found mine at the local gym, having cups of coffee with pensioners. That became my social group!”
The experience left him “hardened”. On U21 duty he said: “Losing your job is something that will affect anyone’s confidence. Anyone who has been through that, no matter what you earn or what you have achieved in your life, it is a blow to the ego.
“It gave me the opportunity to go away and learn and strengthen myself in areas of coaching that I needed more knowledge: management, leadership. It is different from leadership on the field as you are leading an organisation.
Gary Neville fires sarcastic dig at Jacob Rees-Mogg after 'embarrassing' England rap
Gareth Southgate's last England line-up vs Italy from 2018 is virtually unrecognisable
“You are hardened by the experience. Although I think I am a coach that has empathy with his players, I am less worried about whether they are upset and disappointed.”
As substituted, substitute Jack Grealish has found this week.
Southgate's powers of nurture, learning, self-improvement and empathy were evident throughout his reign as U21 boss.
And that was when it first became apparent he was being considered for the senior job, revealed by the Mirror back in October 2014.
Southgate coached the U21s to a highly impressive win over Croatia in Vinkovci, a play off to qualify for the Euro finals.
Harry Kane and Luke Shaw were playing in a performance of swagger, inventive tactics and game management. In the dressing room after the game Southgate told his kids: "I have played in England teams who couldn't keep the ball like that. People said we couldn't play like that. You can change people's opinions of what we are about and capable of doing."
Seven years on, England kept the ball for almost three minutes and 54 passes to see out the Denmark win on Wednesday night.
Behind the Vinkovci stadium, Adrian Bevington, then Club England MD, and close to Southgate and FA chiefs, admitted he'd be a contender for the senior job then held by Roy Hodgson.
Southgate is a thoughtful, decent leader England can be proud of
It took a newspaper sting to end Sam Allardyce's brief reign to eventually give Southgate the role.
One quote, from hours of listening and questioning Southgate over the years, stands out, and bodes well for the weekend.
“I think when you have been through what I have as an individual, first of all in 1996 (that missed penalty), losing the job at Middlesbrough – having had to manage in the Premier League with no experience at 35….
Add in the World Cup in 2018, and the current campaign. Southgate added: “…I think I can cope with anything really.”
Whatever happens, Gareth Southgate has grown into a leader England can be proud of.
Simon Bird has chronicled the career of Gareth Southgate from player, captain, and manager at Middlesbrough to his reign as England U21 boss.