Friday 19 October 2018

England refusing to be weighed down by history

Southgate banking on softly-softly approach as he bids to avoid pitfalls of previous tournaments

Gareth Southgate: ‘There’s been a disconnect from the fans with the players. Part of it was maybe not knowing how much they care or their backgrounds’
Gareth Southgate: ‘There’s been a disconnect from the fans with the players. Part of it was maybe not knowing how much they care or their backgrounds’

Sam Wallace

In a small room at the top of the west stand at Elland Road, overlooking the car park where Brian Clough once invited the great Leeds United team of the 1970s to put all their medals in a dustbin, Gareth Southgate reflected on the approach that has taken him this far.

It was late on Thursday and his family were waiting for him downstairs after the win over Costa Rica. In the last two days before the England team reconvened on Saturday evening he had promised himself, in no particular order, a haircut, a long walk with the dogs and a few hours watching his son play cricket. In the glow of a good performance, England's young manager was allowing himself to be open about the young squad in which he feels such pride.

He talked about how he has asked them to take part in exercises that have been a good few paces out of his own comfort zone, chuckling as he imagined their internal responses. "Sometimes I think 'They are never going to have a go at this'," he said breaking into a laugh. "And at times they are painstakingly putting up with the things that I throw their way." He has asked them to be open about their back stories, in private and in public, and if that sounds like the trendy young teacher -he is 'Gareth' to his players, not 'boss' - then his attitude is, quite frankly, who cares?

Whatever Southgate does, he has at least tried to do it differently and if this England team succeeds or fails in Russia then it will do so on his terms. He has thought hard about trying to establish a connection with this group of young players which puts their life experience at the centre of the exercise, rather than them simply submitting to becoming another part of the history of the last 52 years of the national team.

There is a question about the danger of the old big club cliques re-emerging, and Southgate takes his answer in different direction. Many of his players are young enough to have come through the junior sides at St George's Park where the England experience has been very different to that of their predecessors.

"We are nothing to do with the past," he says. "The past can inform us and help us but shouldn't shape us. We have got to be our own team. This is a diverse team with different sets of skills. They have got a chance to make their own history."

So much of what the England manager says is persuasive because he is so disarmingly open. There is, in Southgate's approach, no insecurity about a reputation to defend and no ego at all. He is unembarrassed about trying new methods because he can see the occasional absurdities of the process as clearly as anyone. He also knows that if one of them provides even a percentage more of a chance to succeed then it will have been worth the awkwardness of the parts that failed.

It would be right to say that Roy Hodgson also agonised over making a connection with players two generations younger than him, and did occasionally make mistakes, although he always tried hard to surprise and challenge. Southgate has continued that and like every manager he knows that ultimately his methods will be judged on the results. Even so, whatever happens this feels like the way to go: more openness to the public and media, treating players like adults, engaging them in discussion about their fears and hopes - and even the tactics.

The caveat being that these sunny days of June before the squad leaves for a tournament are always the last days of the honeymoon: peak optimism in the nation, wall-charts Blu-Tacked, the traditional pre-embarkation photograph in suits on the steps of the plane.

"Why would I limit what they feel is possible?" Southgate says. "My job is to allow people to dream . . . what's the saying? . . . 'make the impossible seem possible'. They are at an age with hunger, enthusiasm and no little quality that they can certainly start improving. We have got to improve to reach the latter stages of a tournament and that is going to take a lot of hard work over the next few weeks and a huge commitment but I am seeing evidence that we are embracing that challenge."

Part of the process has been talking about the relevance of England in their own lives. There was Ashley Young's Twitter post of him as a child in a 1986 England kit, Harry Maguire's photo of him with mates at Euro 2016 and even Southgate has dug out a picture of his 11-year-old self wearing the 1982 Admiral classic. He wants his players to have ownership of the England story - they are, after all, the England squad -0 rather than feel they are owned by England.

It is that trust which has extended to the tactical discussions too, which as Southgate admits, were also a feature of the Hodgson regime. "They know they can have an input, they have a good opinion on things and they are able to suggest solutions that they may think are better than those we propose. They have a voice. We want them to have some ownership. When I decide, 'Okay we are not going with that one but we will have a think about this one' they really respect that."

Southgate was reluctant to connect too directly Danny Rose's admission last week about suffering from depression during his recovery from a serious knee injury to the atmosphere he has tried to foster in the camp. But it would be fair to say that the old assumptions about showing no weakness, about a siege mentality, hiding your vulnerabilities and emphasising your strengths - they are all gone. There is no point, as Southgate knows, trying to be anything one is not, because the white hot scrutiny of a World Cup final finds out the truth.

Neither did he ask directly for the support of the fans, knowing that is something that after all these years can only really be earned as opposed to demanded. "I think there's been a disconnect from the fans with the players. We recognise that and part of it was maybe not knowing how much they care or their backgrounds. So we have tried to have an effect on that." Which is all he can do, and although the aims are modest, he hopes that all combined they will add to much more for England in Russia.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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