In the eight months since reaching the third-place playoff at the World Cup in Russia, Gareth Southgate has had to watch the Football Association’s technical director, Dan Ashworth – one of the organisation’s key figures – leave for Brighton and Hove Albion. He has faced uncertainty around whether his trusted assistant Steve Holland would take over at Chelsea. This week it has emerged that the future of psychologist Dr Pippa Grange, the FA’s head of people and team development, who is widely credited for her work with the England squad last summer, is also up in the air.
“England” the concept – the camp, the players, the staff, the fans, the media – is a constantly moving beast, which can bite your hand at any moment and sometimes in unexpected ways. In recent history, it has been a gauntlet of newspaper stings and sex scandals.
One slip and the job can be over, and Southgate could have easily slipped up along the way. Yet during the two and a half years of his time in charge, he has smoothly navigated questions about politics, racism and bullying, at the same time as single-handedly convincing people to start wearing waistcoats on a daily basis again.
This week has been more of the same: he had to share his views on the dual nationality debate, after convincing defensive midfielder Declan Rice to choose England instead of Republic of Ireland, with whom the West Ham player had won three caps in friendlies (Southgate pointed out, quite rightly, this is an issue that nations and players will increasingly have to deal with). Only yesterday he had to quickly shape an opinion about the 20-year-old midfielder’s pro-IRA posts on social media, made in 2015 but circulated widely on the eve of his potential debut.
It is just as well that Southgate is the sort of guy who, away from football and over dinner and a drink, is happy not to talk only about football incessantly, like some in the game. He is obsessed with football, obviously, but he has interests and opinions elsewhere.
Yet after all that has come before and for all the popularity he has earned, in front of Southgate and his England team stand two relatively straightforward opponents in their Euro 2020 qualifiers who, in the space of four days, could make a savage dent in everything.
The saying goes that you’re never more than six feet away from a rat and, equally, the England manager is never more than two defeats away from having a shower of the unprintable poured all over him.
Lose to Czech Republic and Montenegro and it’s back to the old England, and the same old problems. That is the pressure and expectation of being England manager, of being manager of a nation who were not even in the top ten best in the world when Southgate took over.
Still, just as an alarming number of people in the UK seem to think the UK has the divine right to leave the EU yet retain all of the benefits of the EU without any of the EU’s downsides, so the England team are expected to have a divine right to win every game and travel far in every tournament.
So there really is no rest for the England manager.
It is a culture of pressure that has seen off more experienced England managers and a “golden generation” of players, so Southgate has combated it with his own counterculture infused with youth and enthusiasm and some fun.
There is an aura around talented young English teenagers at the moment that Southgate is central to. England fans are desperate to see players who have barely kicked a ball in their club’s first team, or have been doing so away from the Match of the Day cameras in the Bundesliga, about whom they know little until they see their name in England’s squad and Google it.
It will certainly be exciting when Callum Hudson-Odoi, pictured, comes on as a substitute for his first England cap? The forward has not even started a Premier League game for Chelsea – played only 119 minutes in total, less than a match and a half – yet his surprise inclusion, after Luke Shaw pulled out with injury, has been a major story of the past week.
Marcus Rashford is injured but that makes the likelihood of Jadon Sancho starting even greater, and who doesn’t want to see that?
There is a constant pressure to giving these younger players a go, and putting your future in the hands of the unknown, that Southgate seems to enjoy.
It never gets any easier, but then nothing worth having ever was.