Gareth Southgate is focused on pushing his England team as far as possible and that includes victory over Italy in the European Championships final
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It was the day after the heady night before, after the remarkable occasion of England actually winning a semi-final at a major tournament, and Gareth Southgate sat the players down at their St George’s Park training base.
The England manager spoke about all they have achieved – “the legacy bits” and the respect they have earned during this uplifting campaign – before adding the punch: “Now you have a choice – what colour medal?”
Will it be that of a winner, after Sunday’s European Championships final against Italy, or a runner-up following the last match of this most taxing of seasons, the biggest game of their lives?
Southgate has tough choices to make for the final but it is possible that, for the first time since the World Cup semi-final against Croatia three years ago, he will name an unchanged side. The choice appears to lie between retaining Bukayo Saka or starting with, probably, Phil Foden or Jadon Sancho.
As he explains the “culture” he has brought to England, his reluctance to take the job back in 2016 and “what modern England is” Southgate smiles when asked about the continued fascination with his own redemption story – the man who missed that penalty at Euro 96 who is now on the brink of bringing a trophy home for the first time since 1966.
“I could see the sort of film script or whatever,” he says before insisting that the wild scenes of celebration after beating Denmark in extra-time, as he roared in delight out on the pitch and punched the air, were never going to be an end in themselves. Finally winning a semi-final, no matter how significant it felt, is emphatically not enough.
“It was strange the other night because once I’d finished embarrassing myself on the pitch, all I could think about… It wasn’t pinching myself ‘we’re in the final’. It was ‘we’ve got to get this right now’.” Southgate says.
“Because I know it won’t be enough for me and for the rest of the staff and for the players if we don’t win it now. You get lovely messages that say ‘whatever happens now’… But that won’t be how it will be on Monday. I get the story, but it’s been about how can we keep progressing, how do we push this team as far as we think we can.”
It has been Southgate’s approach ever since he took over. No, that is wrong. It has been his approach ever since he got involved in trying to develop English football, trying to modernise the Football Association’s approach – from the grassroots to the senior team which he took charge of, having been reluctant to be a caretaker, after Sam Allardyce’s brief regime.
“I knew that when we have had difficult tournaments as a country, the FA come under scrutiny, so there is not going to be any enthusiasm for an FA man getting the job and I know people saw me as an FA man,” Southgate says when asked about his the perception of him five years ago. “I don’t mind that, by the way, because I think what the FA actually stand for – from grassroots football to people like Peter Sturgess who takes our six to 11 programme to Nick Levett, who travelled around the country putting the smaller formats of the game out there – then if that’s what being an FA man is, then I’m happy to be accused of it.”
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Southgate is also happy to be English. “What hit me coming back from Russia (World Cup in 2018) was families coming up to me on the street, people coming up to me from all backgrounds of our country and saying they felt they could go to a game now and not be abused at the stadium, connect with the team. They felt part of it,” he explains.
“And that inclusivity is really important for us because I think that is what modern England is. We know it hasn’t always been the case and there are historic reasons for that. But that level of tolerance and inclusion is what we have to be about moving forward…We have a view of what being English should represent and standards we want to hit.”
Southgate insists that all he ever tries to be is “authentic to myself” as he has revolutionised the “culture” around England and admits that good results and progress have made him “be brave” and “more bullish I suppose about standing up for those principles over the last couple of years, because I recognise the position I’m in and the influence I can have in a positive way”.
Southgate has revolutionised the culture within the England squad and has formed a close bond with the players
Southgate, whose week goes “from intense tactical discussions to something about junior teams to the NHS”, adds: “I hope I’ve always respected the fact that the position carries some weight and not abused that by going into areas that I shouldn’t, but I’ve felt there are positive things that we could help to change or influence in society. I always think about Sir Bobby (Robson) when I’m thinking about those things because to me he was a fantastic role model as well as getting results with the team, just the way he was with people, the time he had for people, he was like that with me…Those sorts of things do play on your mind, that you’re following this line of history that we talked to the players about, this is our moment and you want to leave the position in the best possible place really.”
And so, if he had the chance, what would the Gareth Southgate of 2021 say to the brave young man who missed from the penalty spot 25 years ago? “Well, I suppose if I was to be able to take something from that, if I’m talking to young people now, hopefully what they’ve seen is that those sorts of moments in your life don’t have to define you,” he explains.
“You have to work your way through them and develop resilience. There’s a really fine balance now, because we know young people need support and we’ve got to treat them in certain ways. But if you’re trying to achieve extraordinary things, which our players are, then you’re into an environment that is a lot more hostile, and it can’t always be supportive. You’ve got to play in front of 90,000 people, and get the… you know, you’re in the Colosseum and it’s the thumbs up or the thumbs down, and that can’t always be a cuddly, warm environment, and so you’ve got to have resilience, you’ve got to develop resilience, but those experiences can help shape you if you respond to them in the right way.”
He is testament to doing just that.