Has the warm reception for mild-mannered Gareth Southgate – even in Scotland – given notice to the braggarts and buffoons, asks Gina Davidson
If the answer is Gareth, what is the question?
So went one rather snide headline five years ago when Gareth Southgate was appointed as England’s under-21s manager. Not an adventurous choice was the message – certainly not a revolutionary one.
The same doubts were still being voiced when Roy Hodgson quit as the English manager after Euro 2016. How could Southgate, who became infamous for missing the vital penalty in the semi-final shoot-out against Germany in Euro 1996, really be the one to make England great again?
The men in grey suits decided he wasn’t. But when blustering, bluffing, barrel-chested Sam Allardyce was forced to resign from the post – after just 67 days and one game in charge – Southgate found the ball at his feet and the fans, immediately, on his back.
Well, where are they now, as Delia Smith might well ask?
Just look and you’ll see them: singing songs about Southgate and his team; proudly waving the St George’s flag; increasing sales of M&S navy waistcoats in emulation of their new icon.
Of course, they’re disappointed that England won’t actually win this year’s World Cup, but the thrill of making it to the semis for the first time since 1990 – of a Russian odyssey far beyond their expectations – and the excitement of a young, multicultural team full of potential, well it’s something to sing about.
And at the helm stands an apparently decent, affable, modest man, with a wonky nose, a waistcoat and the most English of teeth.
So if the answer is indeed Gareth – what then is the question?
According to Tim Samuels, former presenter of BBC’s The Men’s Room and author of a lighthearted dissection of modern day masculinity, Who Stole My Spear?, the question could be, what does a modern male role model look like?
“The way Southgate conducts himself is a modern, and refreshing, form of masculinity. He’s not involved with flashy nonsense, he’s not macho – yet he’s still achieving success,” says Samuels. “In a world of Trump and Weinstein, he’s a real antidote.
“Politics has become a macho pissing contest. We used to roll our eyes at American politics, but you look at many of our current politicians and you know they are motivated by ego and not national interest because most of them have a mental age stuck in their public school days.
“Then Southgate comes along and for him it’s all about the national interest and being part of a real team – there are very few figures on the public stage you can say that about.
“He comes across as a really decent bloke, willing to admit faults, not swept up in arrogance and hubris. There’s an ideal model of Englishness around fair play and decency and Southgate does seem to epitomise that at a time when our politics has gone into some kind of hysterical realm.”
Decent, affable, modest – humble even. These are the qualities ascribed to Southgate that have made him the poster boy for team spirit and steadfastness in what are tumultuous times in Britain. They’re qualities that saw many Scots drop their “Anyone But England” footballing support during this World Cup and reluctantly back the auld sporting enemy – and that even won round hardline football haters.
“I don’t watch football. I hate it, and everything that surrounds it, because I find it all a very toxic form of masculinity,” says Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist campaigner and writer. “But I found myself watching the last two England games and the football news in between them and beginning to care about it, and that’s because of Gareth Southgate.”
She laughs at her transformation. “I love Gareth Southgate, so does my mum and every woman I know. My mum now wants to properly follow the England team.
“There’s something so lovely about him and the way he treats his team. He just seems like he would be a really good dad and there’s something so lovely about someone like that being the person that, at the moment, is the most loved man in the country.
“And the players themselves seem such nice boys, I really feel affection for them. They are a real team, very together, and I think that’s the way Southgate has trained them. It’s also great that kids get to see you don’t have to be some macho, alpha-male type of masculinity in order to be well respected and powerful and successful.“
Like Samuels, Criado-Perez believes that the unity Southgate has inspired has also been provoked by a “desperation” to see decency among male leaders. “Look at the way the cabinet is behaving… David Davis, Boris Johnson… that is the epitome of toxic masculinity,” she says. “We’re desperate for something good, something positive right now when everything else is so bleak. To know there are good people, good men still out there is heartening.”
Southgate’s own professional story has without doubt, added to the warmth felt towards him throughout the World Cup. He has certainly known public humiliation and how it feels to hit rock bottom professionally.
“When you have been through what I have,” Southgate said back in October 2014, “first of all in 1996, then losing the job at Middlesbrough – having had to manage in the Premier League with no experience at 35 – I think I can cope with anything, really.”
Southgate was 20 when he made his professional playing debut for Crystal Palace before going on to play for Aston Villa and then Middlesbrough – at the same time gaining 57 caps for England.
In 2006 he became Middlesbrough manager, but was sacked when the club were relegated from the Premier League three years later. From those ashes grew his career in coaching with the Football Association. He was made the head of elite development, working with Sir Trevor Brooking to establish how best to bring through future footballing stars – perhaps he is now reaping what he sowed back then.
He had a brief spell as a TV football pundit before going back to the FA to take on the under-21s manager’s role – deliberately ruling out doing any television work at the same time. “I want to be recognised as a coach and committed to that and don’t want there to be any perception that I’ve got a life-raft there in case things don’t work out,” he said.
“I had a period of stepping back and being a bit comfortable and I wanted a challenge that will be tough. I don’t see the point of doing things in life if they’re not difficult.”
There can hardly be, in football, a job more difficult than the one he has now, or a crown more heavy. Yet at 48, he seems to wear it lightly.
“He has an amazing personal story coming from rock bottom after that penalty miss, facing such a public low, a public humiliation, to very quietly building himself back up and, in the face of doubters, being successful,” says Samuels.
“That no doubt leads to how he relates to his players. He has almost a big-brotherly, fraternal relationship with the players.
“He’s very encouraging, he puts his arm around them and not many managers do that. He’s emotionally intuitive and he keeps them grounded. And, of course, he shared a very public hug with his wife at the end.
“Southgate has set the tone and the players have followed his lead – it has helped, of course, that they are a younger team.”
Unspun presenter and comedian – and former Labour Party adviser – Matt Forde is unashamedly emotional about the journey he’s gone on with Southgate and the England team during the World Cup. “Oh god I love him,” he sighs. “He has such dignity – something we’ve not come to expect from football. He’s not a blowhard, he thinks about more than just football, he has filled a hole beyond football.
“Britain is divided and Southgate has a type of masculinity which is much needed right now. Polite, dignified, confident, sensible. He’s what we all need. He’s what some politicians should be looking to emulate.”
Forde adds: “I always liked him as a player but when he was made manager I thought it was a pretty unremarkable appointment. But he’s shown he has the level of intelligence required for international football and he’s given a young side so much confidence – he’s a master of psychology. He’s also been able to create a bond between the team and the fans. We’ve had more access to them and their stories and how they think in a way we never did when it was a team of Lampard and Neville, who were shut off from us all.”
Samuels also believes Southgate’s approach has meant a reconnection between team and fans.
“There’s been a disconnect between players and fans over the years when players have come across as prima donnas, more concerned with WAGs and social media than with playing for the team.
“I went to university in Scotland and I was there during the 1998 World Cup, and as much as I would always support England, I did wince when I saw the St George’s Cross as it represented a certain nationalism and jingoism which I wasn’t comfortable with. I was always very jealous of Scottish fans, travelling abroad and spreading joy and laughter and English fans spreading broken chairs and racist chants. I wanted us to be more like the Scots. Under Southgate there’s been a change – we’ve moved in that direction and have lost the arrogance.”
Forde takes umbrage at the “English arrogance cliché”. “It’s a generalisation and I resent it,” he says. “I think it’s ludicrous to expect other parts of the UK to support England – it’s a sporting rivalry after all. The vast majority of English fans have no arrogant belief that we are the best – results over the years definitely prove otherwise – and the vast majority behave when they go abroad, it’s always the minority that gain the headlines.
“But Southgate has won a lot of neutrals over. And that’s really heartening. It means so much to hear someone from Scotland or Wales or Ireland say they actually support England – it’s really emotional because it’s so rare to be cast in a positive light.
“Football is emotional. Twenty years on from missing that penalty Gareth Southgate has had redemption. That kind of narrative is what makes it so great.”
Of course, it’s easy to extrapolate too much from sporting victories and losses – already the fact that Croatia, a country of just four million, made it to the final is being held up as a shining example for the Scottish national squad – but could there be some more permanent change in our national discourse, in how male leaders conduct themselves, from the passion Southgate has inspired?
Samuels is doubtful. “It all reminds me of 2012 and the Olympics and that feeling that we were a confident, cool country. But that seems a very long time ago and I have a horrible feeling that when politics resumes its business as usual our current feelings will fade away again like the summer heat.
“But maybe it will come back again in two years for the Euros.”
Forde, who admits to shedding more than a few tears – and rewatching the scenes of Southgate consoling the players and thanking fans – is more positive: “He’s resurrected English football. Perhaps now we know what we really want in our leaders he will have helped set us on a more progressive, unified course as a country. It’s good to have hope.”
Right now though, a bloke called Gareth, dad of two and former pupil of Crawley comprehensive Hazelwick School, is the icon for ideals that seem absent among other male leaders. Johnson, Gove, Davis, Rees-Mogg, Fox – you boys have taken a hell of a beating.