Among the praise showered on Gareth Southgate for leading England to the Euro 2020 final has been acclaim for his hunger for new ideas to produce and sustain a winning team.
That has included looking outside the world of football for inspiration and “rebel ideas”, whether it be studying how the Mercedes Formula One team works or devouring books on anthropology.
Southgate is part of ‘Leaders P8’, a knowledge platform connecting people at the highest levels of sport. The England manager is also part of a WhatsApp group of elite coaches that spring up off the back of the network, featuring the likes of Arsene Wenger, Eddie Jones and Sir Dave Brailsford.
But when it comes to really thinking outside the box, it is another group of “brilliant minds” formed specifically to help transform England’s fortunes that may have helped Southgate most ahead of Sunday’s Euro 2020 final.
The Football Association technical advisory board was set up five years ago by David Sheepshanks, the former chairman of Ipswich Town, ex-FA and Football League director, and founding chairman of St George’s Park.
Similar to Southgate’s appointment as England manager, which came about by accident rather than design, what Sheepshanks calls a “rebel ideas board” owes its existence more to a twist of fate than meticulous planning.
At the end of 2015, Sheepshanks was told that due to budget cuts – or a “night of the long knives” – there would no longer be a St George’s Park board.
So in a bid to preserve the National Football Centre’s “beating heart”, he asked to meet then-FA chief executive Martin Glenn and, together, they came up with the idea for a high-performance “think tank”.
Sheepshanks was then given “free licence” to choose who sat on it and ended up with an advisory board that featured an army colonel, an educationalist, a venture capitalist, an author and only one ex-footballer.
The unpaid group also featured two members of the Leaders P8 network in Brailsford and Stuart Lancaster, who had just been sacked following England’s Rugby World Cup humiliation – Sheepshanks wanted people with experience of both winning and losing “on the biggest stage”.
Meet the Brains Trust (Southgate brain trust)
The appointment of so many members from outside both the game – and sport – was deliberate in order to avoid “groupthink”, Sheepshanks told Telegraph Sport in his first interview about the board.
“What we want is a forum where we can challenge each other safely,” he said. “I am actually a professional executive coach these days and there’s a great word that we use that is ‘carefrontation’, so we confront each other with care.”
The composition of the group was not universally welcomed, with Sheepshanks recalling comments from “naysayers” such as: “What the hell can these people do or know?”
But Southgate was not among them. The group’s first meeting took place shortly after his appointment and he became a regular attendee, as did Glenn before he left the FA two years ago.
“Martin Glenn used to say to me – take this in the right way that it’s meant – they were some of the best meetings you could attend,” Sheepshanks said, hailing the advisory board as “a completely fantastic team”.
“Listening to the brain power around the table and the ideas that come forward is just incredibly stimulating to everyone there.
“You usually have 10 or 20 extraordinary insights or takeaways that you go away and reflect on that Gareth or whoever can use.
“It’s there on the basis of: ‘Use what you will and what you like and discard what you don’t’.”
He added: “Why are we relevant? Because the people around the table know a lot about high-performance and creating winning environments in different areas, and that is absolutely relevant to football in the same way as I know Gareth has developed relationships with English cricket and rugby.”
Gareth Southgate visited England rugby training in 2017
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The advisory board’s thrice-annual meetings take place under Chatham House rules “so that people can talk absolutely openly and with confidence”.
But Sheepshanks revealed the group had discussed the England team’s poor “relationship with the media” before the FA took steps to improve it ahead of the last World Cup, including with the likes of darts competitions between players and journalists.
“I don’t claim any credit for the technical advisory board being the genesis of that,” he said. “But it’s those kinds of things that have been discussed.”
Sheepshanks and other advisory board members were at Wembley on Wednesday night to witness the fruits of their labours as England reached their first major final since 1966, and more hope to see the Three Lions finally end 55 years of hurt against Italy on Sunday.
Just don’t ask them to take any credit if it happens.
“Any pride that I have and share with wonderful colleagues that I work with is just in having even the tiniest role in being able to support and cajole, encourage those who are achieving it,” Sheepshanks said.
“But we haven’t achieved anything. Gareth and his team have achieved all that they’re doing and the credit belongs there.”