According to Arthurian legend, in disguise as a lowly kitchen boy, Sir Gareth earned the affections of a beautiful noblewoman by defeating many great foes to become a Knight of the Round Table. After 3 weeks of World Cup action, Gareth Southgate has surely secured his place as a modern-day legend, earning the affection of the English public and defeating many (great) foes on his way to a World Cup semi-final.
But it all could have been so different…
On the radio the morning after England’s dramatic penalty victory against Colombia, Sam Allardyce was discussing what he would do against Sweden in the quarter-final. Thankfully he is not in Gareth Southgate’s shoes or bursting the buttons on his waistcoat. How the experiences this summer would have differed had Allardyce not sold his England dream for some walking around money and a gig as a keynote speaker. Andy Carroll would have been on for the last 20 minutes against Tunisia while long balls were lumped into the box, probably to little effect. Joe Hart would be in goal, and would not have saved the penalty against Colombia or made the incredible saves Pickford managed against Sweden. We would be playing two defensive midfielders and would not be pressing high up the pitch. Gary Cahill would be playing in place of cult hero Harry Maguire and would be captain ahead of Kane. To put it simply, we would not be in the semi-final of a World Cup.
With the youngest squad at the tournament, Gareth Southgate has moulded this group of millennials into a team devoid of the failures of major tournaments past. With Southgate initially employed on an interim basis, the public was left with the feeling that he was given the position by default. This is not the case. In fact, Southgate was approached by the FA for the job before Sam Allardyce was appointed but said he didn’t feel ready for the position. He was subsequently persuaded by the FA to become the permanent England manager having been groomed for the position for the preceding 5 years.
Southgate’s previous tenure as U21 coach was seen initially, by some, as a negative. The thought being that Southgate was an FA lackie, an extension of FA Head Greg Clarke. Someone who would do the bidding of senior FA officials, with little in the way of opposition. As it turns out, the relationships that Southgate has built with members of this team through the England youth systems has been invaluable. He knows these players. The spine of the team is made up of members of his European Championship Under 21 side from 2015. Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and John Stones had significant roles in that 2015 side, and have all been superb in this year’s World Cup. His man-management techniques have been remarked upon by multiple members of the England squad, with players, coaching staff and press alike noting the relaxed atmosphere around camp. Southgate said: “I think every coach is a psychologist, it’s a fundamental part of what you do. You’re helping people perform to their best and there’s got to be a psychological element to that.”
On his appointment, Southgate had a premonitory view of the World Cup performances: “I’d like an England team that excites the public, that supporters look forward to watching and are ultimately proud of.” Not a feeling we would be experiencing under the stewardship of Sam Allardyce.
England are two victories away from World Cup glory, with which Gareth Southgate would surely live up to the honour bestowed upon his namesake, the lowly kitchen boy who grew to sit alongside King Arthur as a Knight of the Round Table.