At the centre of English football's revolution on the national stage has been Gareth Southgate

Credit: GETTY IMAGES/PA

Now 72, and with a career that began as one of his generation’s greatest players before taking in television and sports administration, Sir Trevor Brooking is far too modest to place himself at the start of English football’s extraordinary renaissance under Gareth Southgate that leads to Sunday’s epic Euro 2020 final.

The story of how England got to within one game of their second major trophy in 149 years of the national team is long and complicated, and is one of those happy confluences of the right people at the right time, when change was demanded. But it starts with Brooking, a thorn in the side of the most powerful in football in the 2000s, demanding that for England teams to be successful they had to pass the ball better. And to instil that culture they needed a rethink, which included the building of what would become St George’s Park.

Not only that, but Brooking brought Southgate into the Football Association twice. So convinced was he that this was the right man, he offered Southgate the Under-21s job in 2013 after Southgate had initially quit his first FA role the previous year. Speaking on the telephone from his home in Essex, Brooking chuckles at the memory of that second approach: “It would have to have been at a coaching function somewhere”. 

“I said, ‘Look, we need to get a coaching philosophy and a way of playing at this new centre’. Gareth could see the opportunity. He said, ‘Let’s go for it’.”

Gareth Southgate was offered the England U21 job in 2013

Credit: ACTION IMAGES

Brooking had fought the representatives of the professional game on the FA board – from the Premier League and Football League – for years that the 350-acre site near Burton-upon-Trent, purchased in 2001, must become the FA’s football centre. He is still not sure why they relented at the third time of asking in June 2008. Brooking had been a key part of the Sport Council’s lottery-funded success with Team GB at the 2000 Sydney Olympics which lead to an invite from the FA in 2004. Changing football was much harder.

For years Brooking was one the few high-profile voices calling for a sea-change to coaching and development, a point he had advocated in his punditry. Brought up at West Ham by Ron Greenwood and John Lyall to play football properly, Brooking was in despair by much of what he saw by the late 1990s. “People were launching the ball into the corners to get long throws. Midfield bypassed. It was a torrid sight”. 

Many forward-thinking academy coaches wanted change, but they needed the impetus. When the famous Three Lions song was mixed in 1996, it is Brooking you can hear after Alan Hansen at the start in the clips of television pundits opining on England: “We are not creative enough,” he says, “we are not positive enough”.

Southgate first joined the FA in 2011 as the head of elite development. As a fully-qualified Uefa Pro License coach, he forged links with academies and coaches and, like Brooking, travelled all over the country to events big and small encouraging a more forward-thinking view. Smaller goals for junior players, as well as smaller pitches, fewer players per team. But progress was slow and Southgate got frustrated. He turned down the FA technical director’s job in 2012 and left. The following year Brooking felt that the impetus was behind St George’s Park and that Southgate was the man to push through change.

“We needed someone who was a good communicator and respected by the clubs,” Brooking said. “Gareth was the man to do that, and St George’s Park would be the hub”. 

Dan Ashworth had been recruited from West Bromwich Albion by Brooking to take over as technical director and be based at St George’s Park. The pieces were in place as the centre neared completion in 2012, but still questions remained. For instance, the Clairefontaine centre outside Paris, and other regional French academies run by the French football federation, took a selection of the French clubs’ best boys for two years from ages 14 to 16. The French system was modelled on the FA’s now defunct Lilleshall national centre. St George’s Park would be a centre for football with no resident footballers. What was it?

Dan Ashworth at St George's Park

Credit: ANDREW FOX

‘It’s just the start’

It was the semi-final of the Under-17s European Championship in 2018, and an England team that included Bukayo Saka lost on penalties to Spain. Disconsolate, the boys came back into the changing room in Chesterfield’s stadium and in walked England manager Southgate. He sat down and spoke to Folarin Balogun who missed the decisive spot-kick. “I’ve been there,” he told him. “It’s just the start. You have so much to look forward to.”

By then, St George’s Park was five years old and had become a hub for coaching and, in particular, the coaches of England’s junior teams. In the national coaches’ room designed by performance director Dave Reddin, with a screen and interactive tactics board at its centre, they went through exhaustive debriefs of each camp from Under-15s to Under-21s. Reddin wanted to know what each set out to achieve. Each manager, including Southgate, was expected to give a presentation and ideas were shared. Then head of development team coaching, Matt Crocker, now at Southampton, set out the template for presenting the feedback.

They marked each player from A* downward. Two young prospects – Mason Mount, born in 1999, and Phil Foden, born in 2000 – were consistently A*. It meant each coach, including Southgate, came to know all these emerging players being shaped by the huge investment in club academies as part of the Elite Player Performance Plan. “Gareth also had a great knowledge of the academy coaches because of all the time he had spent visiting clubs in the early years,” Brooking says.

Southgate recommended appointing the likes of Steve Cooper, formerly at Liverpool’s academy who won the Under-17s World Cup in 2017 and is now Swansea City manager. Also Dan Micciche, an innovative academy coach at MK Dons who joined the FA. So too former Manchester City and Derby County player Paul Simpson, who would win the Under-20s World Cup.

Ashworth drove the project – better quality opposition, better relationships with the club. There were two or three coaches’ meetings a week, beginning every Monday morning with a 9am start at St George’s Park, deep in the Staffordshire countryside. At the end of the day the national team coaches set off to watch academy games and then returned to stay over at St George’s and meet again the following morning. As per the FA’s deal with car manufacturer Vauxhall, all of them drove – in true Partridge style – an FA-provided Insignia. Southgate, collegiate in all other respects, preferred to pick his own car.

In their meetings they were laying the plans for a new England. Better ways of coping with tournament pressures. Better sessions. Better pastoral care. Many of the Under-17s who won the 2017 World Cup sat GCSE exams during the European Championship in Croatia in May. Mike Rigg, now at Burnley, took charge of finding the best boys for the England teams. They observed the players closely on camps. Southgate was keen to secure for England a junior Irish international at Aston Villa, Jack Grealish, who was rated A* and born in Solihull. Later he and Ashworth would do the same with Declan Rice. 

Gareth Southgate wanted Jack Grealish to play for England

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

When new squads were selected at Under-15s level, all the boys’ parents were invited to St George’s Park and Southgate gave the presentation, explaining the “England DNA” philosophy. What was expected of the boys – as well as what the parents could expect of the FA.

The national coaches’ room became a place of ideas and innovation, where the names of the best talent were discussed. You might say it was where Southgate learned to be an international manager. Indeed, commuting from his home in North Yorkshire, he did not even move out into his own office until he became permanent England manager in late 2016.

Brooking told Southgate in 2012 that he did not expect trophies right away. “It was a 10-year plan and we expected to see results in time for the 2022 World Cup,” he says. “But then the success of 2017 happens.” 

Southgate was in charge of the seniors by then but still travelling as much as he could to attend the camps of junior teams. In May 2016 he had won the Under-20s Toulon Tournament with Grealish and Jordan Pickford in the side. Then in 2017 came the breakthrough. World champions at Under-17s and Under-20s; European champions at Under-19s; another Toulon title. The next year the seniors reached the World Cup semi-final with Southgate.

“We had a five-year span of players who were really competing at top level,” Brooking says. “At that stage we were really heading in the right direction. Gareth will tell you that there were now people coming from all over the world to see what was happening at St George’s Park.”

Irresistible momentum

For years Brooking might have felt like a voice in the wilderness, but once he started pushing things happened quickly. The coaches in the English game were ready for change and Southgate was the perfect man to be the face of it for the FA. A famous former player, a man who believed in playing the right way and who had the interests of coaches and players at heart. But there were others from the FA involved in the building of St George’s Park, who visited the building site week after week, and finessed the simple details that made it a success.

“It’s essentially in two parts – one for the grassroots game and coaching education and another for the England teams up to seniors,” Brooking says. They kept them discreetly separate with the privacy required for a top international team. The grassroots coach, Les Howie, who left the FA last year after more than two decades, lived nearby and was crucial in its development. So too Danielle Every, the operational manager who moved close to St George’s to oversee it. Brooking says their contribution should not be forgotten.

Incredible to think there was a time that Brooking’s voice was so vociferous for change he was asked by some members of the FA board in the 2000s not to attend meetings so they could talk without him. But he bears no grudges. There was a moment, he says, that became irresistible when the improving quality of junior England teams had a noticeable effect on visiting club coaches. “They would say, ‘That’s a good group you have there’. And you could see them thinking, ‘We need to start doing this’.”

The “centre of it”, as Brooking likes to say, is Southgate. Once the FA’s lone apostle trying to change minds, he now stands at the head of a system he helped create, with players he has known for years one game from history. He was the right man, as Brooking always believed, and when he is gone those will be some shoes to fill.