The late Ray Wilkins had a very brief playing stint at Crystal Palace, joining on a free transfer from Queens Park Rangers in 1994. Wilkins managed only one game for the south London club, after breaking his foot on debut, and later returned to QPR as player-manager.
But during a pre-season tour in Portugal, Wilkins roomed with a young Gareth Southgate. On a day off, the players went drinking in the sunshine for the afternoon. Wilkins, not being the biggest, could not hold his drink as well as some of the others and by 6pm Southgate had to help him back to their hotel room, to put him in bed. A player needing to be carried back to a hotel wasn’t such an uncommon occurrence in those days, and Southgate tucked Wilkins in and resumed festivities with his team-mates.
By 10pm, the players were a little worse for wear. So while everyone waited outside in the corridor, Southgate sneaked back into the room and turned all the lights on. “Ray, the manager isn’t happy with you, it’s 10am and you’ve missed training,” Southgate said, giving Wilkins a nudge. Wilkins shot out of bed, threw on his training gear, muttering expletives about what the other players had got him into, and hurtled out of the room straight into the rest of his team-mates, dissolving into laughter.
There is a reason Southgate is able to maintain such a relaxed atmosphere with his players: there is very little he has not seen. This is the man who narrowly avoided the infamous Hong Kong dentist’s chair after Stuart Pearce advised him to swerve the bar that evening – and not much he hasn’t done.
Certainly, with the football drinking culture nothing like it was in Southgate’s playing days, there is not much which could shock him. It is why England’s manager is not bothered what his players get up to on their pre-tournament holiday and why he is allowing them a long leash in Russia and not expecting them to tie themselves in knots.
In Southgate’s early days as a youth player at Palace, he turned up for training as a well-spoken, middle-class 14-year-old from leafy Crawley, wearing a cardigan, surrounded by a bunch of rough, edgy south London boys. Away from the training ground in his other life at Hazelwick School, Southgate played cricket and rugby with his classmates and was a strong performer in athletics, representing the school in the 400m and 800m.
So on weekdays he was hanging around with his middle-class friends, studying towards nine O-levels, but at weekends he mixed with the south London boys. He stood out, initially, but Southgate got on with it and the players respected that. Southgate’s differences did not stop him becoming the voice of his team-mates; challenging injustice and taking exception if he and the players did not agree with training methods.
As testament to Southgate’s determination, he racked up around 120 Football Combination games (the equivalent of reserve matches) before breaking into the first team, which is some kind of record as players either made it or dropped out. Southgate was so uncertain of becoming a professional footballer he spent time at the Croydon Advertiser newspaper offices on work experience when he was 16 and considered becoming a sports journalist.
This period is when the many faces of Southgate developed, where England’s manager became the Faceless Man who can mould into any situation. Now he shifts seamlessly from manager, to friend, to businessman, to general piss-taker. Away from the game, he is said to keep a close circle and largely doesn’t socialise with football people. It is why he is as adept at having a meeting with the suits, such as Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn, as he is joking around with young players.
It has not always been that way during Southgate’s career. At times he was unable to find the right face for the occasion. It has been a learning process.
After leaving Middlesbrough in 2009, Southgate was enjoying punditry but still wanted to work in the game. In 2013, the manager’s job at Sheffield United became available and Southgate decided to go for it. He felt he had a good chance, not least because he knew some of the club’s board of directors who had kids at the same school as his pair, Mia and Flynn. Southgate applied. He had an interview. He was polite, articulate, well spoken. It went well and he was sure he had a great chance of getting it. But Sheffield United went for David Weir, instead, to replace Danny Wilson. Southgate was gutted – he was keen to return to management, confident he had more to offer to the game as a head coach.
To find out what went wrong, Southgate asked a close friend with connections in several football circles to put the feelers out. Chairman Dave Green explained that Southgate was too nice and polite – even the directors who dropped their kids off at the same school said he would go up to all the mums and dads, saying hello to everyone. They wanted someone with a bit more steel for the job. When Southgate was told, he replied: “What am I supposed to do, tell my kids to f*** off out of the car and drive off?”
As fate would have it, not long afterwards Southgate became manager of England’s Under 21s, unaware that five years later he would be the national team’s figurehead at the Russia World Cup.
Though Southgate is able to change his many faces, with players he has learned to keep them the same, explains Chelsea midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was called up to England Under 21s by Southgate in 2015. Now a senior player, he has seen how Southgate has not budged in his philosophies and approach regardless of which age group he is dealing with.
“Not at all,” Loftus-Cheek said. “Since the Under 21s and the seniors, I know it hasn’t been too long but he hasn’t changed from my chats with him. I think he’s a really relaxed guy, in general, and I think that rubs off on the group, because I think the group looks relaxed and confident. His mindset rubs off on the group.
“Although he’s such a good manager tactically on the pitch, he’s good at managing players off the pitch because he has that understanding that he’s played as well, he’s been in those situations on the pitch, at club level and England senior level. He’s got some good experience.” Southgate has more experiences, and stories untold, than Loftus-Cheek, or the rest of England’s players, will ever know.