The Southgate train keeps on rolling

December 01, 2022 - 09:52
Gareth Southgate was never the nation's choice but has been the nation's flavour when the time has come.
England's World Cup ride with Gareth Southgate at the wheel is still to be derailed. AFP Photo

Alex Reeves

Welcome to Eng-Land: The theme park with immaculate advertising and a mixture of delighted and disgruntled punters.

Full disclaimer: I've been on this ride before. We all have. England's manager, hero to zero in one tactical decision, one result. England is the most expectant and critical nation regarding our national football, and even my most knowledgeable Vietnamese compatriots are left scratching their heads at our lists of ills and woes. I say that as someone who watches every England game, no matter where and no matter the manager, from Sven to Southgate.

However, for me, this ride is slightly more familiar. As a Middlesbrough fan, I've seen Gareth Southgate manage my club, coming from a similar background to the one in which he finds himself now, disgruntledly expected but never really wanted. Now, with my bias and his record with England at major tournaments, you'd expect me to be singing his praises. Context, though, is everything.

Let's go back to the beginning. As a kid, Gareth Southgate was my hero right about the time he was England's villain. While he was still in the 12-inch shadow of a Pizza Hut advert, he was Captain Marvel for a Boro side going to places we'd never been before. After 128 years in existence, we bagged our first domestic trophy and a journey to the UEFA Cup final. Bliss. I was 13; I thought that was how it was, how Middlesbrough worked, and that we were “that kinda club.”

As money flooded the game, there was an old guard of players on big cash with big egos, and they didn't take well to a man previously their peer calling the shots. Nowadays, we'd greet that as an excellent opportunity for a young manager, but it wasn't to be so. English Premier League fans of a certain age are familiar with Bournemouth or Brighton, whereas Middlesbrough is a '90s relic for the occasional anorak.

Despite being called a Southgate fanboy over the last few years, I called for his head as Boro's boss. He oversaw our relegation to the second tier with a whimper, a dreadful transfer policy, baffling lineups, and excuse after excuse. Substitute transfers for call-ups and fans across the country will relate.

Alex Reeves

Gareth Southgate broke the English nation's heart in '96, and then he broke mine a decade later. I was filled with memories of FA Cup dread as I watched Aaron Ramsey warm-up tonight. An 18-year-old on loan at Cardiff from Arsenal left a well-assembled Boro side for dead as the Welshmen marched on to the final.

That said, those of strong memory among us saw the golden generation of English talent wasted by managers with egos bigger than those of the players. In the glow of retrospect, I see a man wisened by the errors of his early tenure. Gareth Southgate was never the nation's choice but has been the nation's flavour when the time has come. I've engaged in far too many a debate about his tenure as England's manager. While we all share reservations about his tactical flexibility, we surely cannot doubt his ability to facilitate a healthy dressing room culture between young and wealthy men in an era notable for the impact of player power.

No longer is there a need for unnecessary jingoistic chanting. We've had a World Cup semifinal and a European Championship final consecutively; we are, in football terms, contenders. We have 18 days left: The waistcoat and tie are off; let's see what happens. I, for one, am strapped in for the ride. VNS

World Cup