Monday 22 July 2019

Jamie Carragher: Gareth Southgate ditches Mr Nice Guy image to display steely demeanour in the hotseat

England manager Gareth Southgate. Photo: PA
England manager Gareth Southgate. Photo: PA

Jamie Carragher

Gareth Southgate's last World Cup appearance ended with one of the most memorable quotes about an England manager.

It came in 2002 after defeat by Brazil, when Sven-Goran Eriksson was unable to inspire a comeback.

"We were expecting Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan Smith," Southgate was quoted as saying, in what he thought was a private remark capturing the mood of a nation.

As he follows Eriksson's path leading England on the biggest stage, I cannot help wondering what kind of leader Southgate is. I doubt he will be delivering Churchillian speeches in the dressing room, but I also hope and expect he will be more charismatic than the colourless Duncan Smith.

Six years ago, I spent time working alongside Southgate at a major tournament. I was a TV pundit with Southgate, Roberto Martinez and Roy Keane.

Everyone was asking Keane and me about our management aspirations, evidently unaware of the ambition burning in Southgate to prove himself after his first stint as a head coach at Middlesbrough.

He struck me as a person pretty much as I saw him as a player: polite, studious, good company and an all-round likeable bloke. He tended to sit on the fence with his opinions, so much so I cannot recall him saying anything headline-grabbing or contentious when we sat on the sofa in Poland during Euro 2012. If Keane or I were going off on one, he courteously agreed or kept his thoughts to himself.

Did I think he would be managing England two World Cups later? No. He did not strike me as elite management material. I had similar misgivings when he was a player.

As a centre-back playing in the same era, I admired Southgate. He won 57 England caps and was a high-quality, reliable and consistent defender.

As he was so talented, I thought there must have been something missing from his character preventing top-four clubs making a serious bid. With respect to Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, they were never going to play in the Champions League. What was he lacking?

My suspicion was that the top managers felt Southgate too 'nice'. That has been the overriding view of him throughout his career. For better or worse, we do not equate being a 'nice' person with being a winner.

Those who succeed tend to possess an edge, even a touch of nastiness when it matters, to get where they and their clubs need to be. All the best managers have a snarl in them.


Southgate's brief spell in club management at Middlesbrough did not end well, and although he impressed with England's U-21s, few make the step up to the senior team.

Given these preconceptions, his appointment at the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign did not fill the country with confidence, especially as it was due to the circumstances following Sam Allardyce's sacking. It felt like England had nowhere to turn.

However, everything Southgate has said and done over the two years leading England to Russia has been impressive.

There are subtle differences in management style that we may consider giant steps over the next month, and what really bodes well is he has shown a steel that his 'nice guy' public demeanour disguises.

We can dismiss any whispers before his appointment that he is little more than a Football Association 'yes man'.

Our presumption that Southgate is not tough enough for the job may be wrong.

Southgate's judgement was sharp when he first rejected the England post on an interim basis when Roy Hodgson was sacked, unwilling to hold the fort while the FA searched for someone else.

It was the first sign that he was prepared to make a choice that must have hurt at the time, but proved astute in ensuring he later received the role permanently.

He has made big decisions over the past 12 months. Easing out captain Wayne Rooney was skilful, as was dropping Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere on the eve of the competition.

Changing the system to three at the back after qualification is brave, as is the use of Kyle Walker in that back three for the good of the team - whether Walker likes it or not.

Too often, England managers have made calls which, in the short term, avoid controversy but hinder long-term progress - especially taking injured players and keeping faith in or pandering to big names who have lacked form and fitness for months. It feels like Southgate made a list of all the errors identified going into previous tournaments and did the opposite.

That has taken courage because he will have made enemies along the way.

There are other examples of Southgate expertly defusing the hand grenades every England manager gets chucked at him. I loved how he stood up to foreign secretary Boris Johnson when it was hinted England may have to boycott the World Cup amid rising tensions between the British and Russian governments.

Most recently we saw the controversy of Raheem Sterling's tattoo approached head-on by the manager, followed by his criticism of the player for his late arrival at training.

Such details will not matter if England fail again, but it is refreshing to see an England manager in such control. This tells us about Southgate's true character.

It is also refreshing to have an England manager without any baggage. Southgate goes into the competition with a clean slate. Indeed, the last time an England manager went into a competition with such a high approval rating was probably Glenn Hoddle in 1998, or even Terry Venables in 1996.

It will not matter if England lose early, but it is still a healthier situation than before recent major tournaments.

We will know more over the next three fixtures if Southgate's approach has made any difference to performances.

The true examination starts against Tunisia today, a fixture I believe tougher than many anticipate, given that they recently drew with Turkey and Portugal, and lost narrowly to Spain.

There is plenty of goodwill going into the competition, but we have been in the midst of a phoney war until now. We will see how long the mutual respect between the manager, players and media lasts if England underperform.

If England are a goal down at half-time, Southgate's players will be judging what kind of leader he is, just as he did Eriksson.

He has shifted public perceptions of his management.

Now he needs his England team to change how the supporters feel about them. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

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