Monday 24 September 2018

Southgate reaps rewards for keeping faith in talent supply

These England players did not rip up trees at youth level but senior manager believed in them

England manager Gareth Southgate celebrates after England secure a place in the semi-finals
England manager Gareth Southgate celebrates after England secure a place in the semi-finals

Sam Wallace

The question posed by the director of Aston Villa's 1995-96 season video was a simple one, and the earnest answers accounted for a few minutes of premium club shop VHS. What, the members of the squad were asked, is your favourite drink?

This being the days before alcohol was identified as the enemy of the professional footballer, the players were quite specific. Nigel Spink was partial to a pint of bitter and, when it got late, a Bacardi and Coke. When in Dublin, Andy Townsend said he favoured a pint of Guinness. "Lager," said Carl Tiler, "or beer".

Only the 25-year-old centre-back Gareth Southgate seemed uncomfortable with all the boozing and famously clarified his position thus: "During the week I drink mostly water and stuff like that. But I enjoy a few beers at the weekend to unwind."

Boring

That footage was first dug out from its corner of YouTube when Southgate was appointed England manager to try to illustrate how boring he was. Perhaps by the tiresome standards of the old-school football man but there has never been any pretence about Southgate to be the alpha male of yesteryear.

In the '90s, when that tradition was still very much alive, no wonder he felt out of his time. But the world looks different now. Apprentices no longer do menial tasks, or get subjected to weird pseudo-sexual first-team initiations. Southgate asks that his players call him Gareth rather than 'Boss'.

As England manager he has demonstrated that it is okay to be patriotic without invoking the dreary spirit of 'Ten German Bombers' and 'No Surrender'.

How? By demonstrating a quiet pride and staunch belief in the capacity of young English players to compete with the world's best. As the FA's head of coaching, he attended junior England team base camps at tournaments and would join in with classroom exercises to get to know the boys at all levels.

He came to believe fervently that there were good players out there, it was simply that many of the clubs lacked the faith.

For the most part this Southgate team that has reached the World Cup semi-final, were not teenage prodigies. Many were not at big clubs or contracted to the kind of management companies one might expect to see in control of star names.

One only has to look at their teenage social media posts - Jordan Pickford's tweet lamenting his parents' refusal to install a Sky Box in his bedroom, Dele Alli's bathroom mirror selfies - to see they grew up relatively unknown.

The current England team has not been burdened with the expectation that was the lot of some of the golden generation, most notably Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole and then later Wayne Rooney. Even Jack Wilshere had a higher-profile start to his career than any of his peers currently playing for England.

The England team that started the quarter-final against Sweden encompassed two from the academy of Sunderland, and another two from Sheffield United. Barnsley, Watford, MK Dons, Queens Park Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur were represented. Kieran Trippier was an apprentice at a pre-Abu Dhabi Manchester City. Only Jesse Lingard, from Manchester United, broke through at a long-standing member of the English game's elite. Six of them made their parent club professional debuts in the Football League.

All of them showed great early promise along the way, and some - like Dele - made rapid strides as soon as their potential was spotted. But none of them have been the archetypal child star.

Like their manager, they have been obliged to take it relatively slowly and as a group of 11 players they have a total of 18 loan spells between them as they attempted to establish themselves as first-team regulars at their parent clubs.

Southgate spoke about the profile of his team earlier in the week when he reflected on his own background.

"We've scrapped and fought our way," he said. "Most of our boys have played in the Championship or lower, whether they started there or played on loan there."

In the aftermath of Saturday's win, Southgate's thoughts were still not far from what he considers the fundamental problem facing the English game.

"The more remarkable thing is that we're in a semi-final but we only have 33pc of the (Premier) League to pick from," he said.

"That is still a huge problem for us. We are playing some young players who are barely established at their clubs, let alone international careers."

Premier League academies have never been better resourced, and never has it been easier for them to cherry-pick the best young players at smaller clubs. The success of the U-17s and U-20s last summer in winning their World Cups, as well as the U-19s' European championships suggests that the Elite Player Performance Plan is producing better players.

Investment

Yet for all the Premier League investment, the next England senior debut is likely to be Ryan Sessegnon, of Fulham, an EPPP Football League phenomenon.

Another unusual trend with this England squad is the pre-eminence of players born post-Christmas - 15 out of 23 - which, in the August break-off point for the UK school year puts them in the younger cohort in their age group.

Traditionally, the top academies have recruited boys who have tended to be born in the early months - September to December - because they have the edge physically. Harry Kane, July born, is a prime example of those bucking the trend.

Southgate has been a keen observer of the junior England teams and the players they have attracted. For instance, he knew about Alli when he was a junior at MK Dons.

This England manager knows the academy system of English football better than any of his predecessors - and also the struggle of his players to make it as professionals.

All of them established themselves in the Premier League eventually, but it took Southgate's faith to know they were ready for a World Cup finals. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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