Gareth Southgate replaced Sam Allardyce as England manager
From his place on the touchline at the Stozice Stadium in Ljubljana, Gareth Southgate may have been aware that there was some hostility in the chants from the travelling England away fans in Slovenia, although on this occasion it was not directed at either players, managers or even opposition.
The chant was aimed, instead, at a newspaper – this newspaper. “F— the Telegraph, f— the Telegraph, f— the Telegraph,” sang the England support during that World Cup qualifier in October 2016. Southgate was in charge of just his second match as an emergency interim appointment. A month earlier he had been planning to be somewhere else that day – specifically Walsall, where his England Under-21s were playing Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Banks’s Stadium in a European Championship qualifier. Instead here he was in charge of the senior team – the accidental England manager.
The extraordinary story of how Southgate became England manager – now on the brink of Euro 2020 glory – demonstrates that for every masterplan, there needs to be some good fortune. When England were eliminated by Iceland at Euro 2016, prompting Roy Hodgson’s immediate resignation, the Football Association was plunged into a recruitment crisis. No young coaches who were suitable, no older candidates who wanted it. The FA offered the job to Arsene Wenger, who declined, and as for second choices there were few.
On July 22, they appointed Sam Allardyce, then 61. Following the departure of Greg Dyke there was, at the time, no FA chairman and so the committee convened to appoint the next man included Dyke’s temporary replacement David Gill, former Manchester United chief executive and eminence grise of English and European football politics. So too FA chief executive Martin Glenn and the organisation’s technical director Dan Ashworth who was then pushing through radical reforms that would change the FA’s coaching and development of players in junior England teams.
The criteria Glenn outlined for selecting a new manager made it feel like he might as well have been choosing the head of an embattled rebel militia, rather than the manager of a football team that plays ten to 12 games a year. He said conversations with former players had revealed “resilience under pressure” as crucial factor. “It’s two things,” he said, “it’s confidence in there being a match plan and it’s personal resilience. Especially now at a time of massive social media.”
He added that the “British press, like it or not, are probably the most intensely passionate about the game in the world and that has a spill-over effect. The consequence of which is that people probably play not to make a mistake, as opposed to play to win.”
Allardyce’s win record would be the most impressive of any permanent appointment to the job – 100 per cent success rate. Although it would be for just the single match against Slovakia in a World Cup qualifier in Bratislava on Sept 4. Two days later Southgate’s Under-21s beat Norway 6-1 in Colchester. It was to be Southgate’s final game in charge of the junior side although he did not know it yet. He did, however, have some thoughts of his own on being manager of the England senior team.
Sam Allardyce during his brief stint as England manager
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“It wasn’t a route I felt I was ready to take,” he said, discussing the summer recruitment process. “I’m pretty clear on what I’m comfortable with but also I know to take that role wasn’t something I’ve got the experience for. It’s one of the ultimate jobs and you want every skill-set possible when you go into it. Sam obviously has years and years of experience.”
Southgate’s contract with the FA was due to expire after the Under-21s European championship the following summer. The same tournament one year earlier in 2015 had been a bust in terms of performance. Two defeats to Portugal and Italy had seen England out at the group stages. Harry Kane had come back down from the seniors but under-performed. John Stones had missed two games with concussion. One year on, in May 2016, Southgate had his first success, winning the Under-21s Toulon Tournament. "I’m fiercely ambitious,” he clarified that night in Colchester, but he seemed to have other things on his mind.
He had been at the FA for an 18-month period from 2011 when Sir Trevor Brooking had appointed him head of elite development for young players, a role into which Southgate threw himself. He left in July 2012 having turned down the technical director’s job but was persuaded to come back the following year to take charge of the Under-21s. Looking forward to the summer of 2017 he was hankering after a return to club football.
"With England, there are one or two other things that I would want to have had experience of before I took that role [the England manager’s job],” he said. “To be going into it from a real position of strength. Maybe that happens in the future, maybe it doesn’t.”
On Sept 27, 2016, Allardyce resigned as England manager after being exposed by the Daily Telegraph for negotiating a £400,000 business deal with undercover reporters. Southgate was asked by the new FA chairman Greg Clarke to take the senior team. “It wasn’t Plan A, that’s for sure,” Clarke said. “Gareth Southgate will do a good job. He knows the people, knows the team, knows the set-up at St George’s Park. He’ll take over pretty seamlessly and he’ll get them organised for Malta in ten days’ time.”
Three weeks’ earlier Southgate had been keen to stress that his credentials for the job were not yet in place. Now the dynamic was different. England beat Malta 2-0 and moved on to Slovenia but not before Southgate held a pre-match press conference with Wayne Rooney to announce that the captain had been dropped. It was unprecedented. Previously Allardyce had not only confirmed the then 30-year-old’s longevity, he had suggested Rooney could play wherever he wanted.
Wayne Rooney and Gareth Southgate ahead of the Slovenia match in 2016
Rooney would come on as a substitute in that game in Ljubljana as England searched in vain for a winner. Another qualifier against Scotland the following month, Nov 2016, would be his last serious cap. Afterwards, injured and out the subsequent Spain friendly, Rooney would make a surprise appearance at a wedding being held at the squad’s Grove Hotel base in Hertfordshire. Southgate was in the midst of trying to secure a job he suddenly realised he wanted. Rooney was pictured in full England squad gear looking a little tired and emotional.
By the time Rooney played again it would be two years on, a valedictory farewell at Wembley as thanks for his fine service. England had moved on by then, reaching a World Cup semi-final without him. In Oct 2016, with very little fuss, Southgate had started to wind down the career of England’s greatest-ever goalscorer and his squad’s most famous name. He was not even England manager yet.
Beating Scotland was thought to be enough to get Southgate the job. His side almost beat Spain too, only for the visitors to score twice in the last few minutes to draw. Five days after the game, Southgate would sign a contract to manage England, initially until Euro 2020. Yet even before then there was already a sense that he was the right fit. Before the Spain game he had laid out his philosophy. “My view is you manage every game like you’re going to be there forever and make decisions for the long term.”
“What’s the plan?” he asked rhetorically. “Go selfish? Shut up shop? Try to eke out a 1-0? Or do we say, ‘Lads, let’s play with belief. Go with what we think is the right way to play’. We’ll get some of those things wrong but we’ll get a lot right. We have to think further forward.” A bold new era had started, although just not the way the FA expected.