In defence of Gareth Southgate

by Rick Johansen

Visiting social media during or after an average, or worse than average, performance by the England football team is rarely a wise thing to do if you are pleased with the overall direction of the team and the manager, as I am. I made this elementary mistake after England’s drab draw on a cabbage patch pitch in North Macedonia. It was as if the world had ended, that world being one of over-expectation, entitlement all wrapped up with a terrible memory. It goes something like this.

  • England have a divine right to turn up and win every game they play in.
  • The manager, whoever the manager happens to be, isn’t up to the job and someone, almost certainly unnamed, would do a better job.
  • The players should play better because they earn loads of money.
  • A well-drilled opposition team, playing a low block for the entire match, should be easy to break down because it’s very easy, isn’t it?
  • The players don’t care.

And so on and so on. All opinion, of course, dressed up as facts. But opinions very firmly held and alternative opinions are not welcome.

Our divine right to win is not something new. I can remember it since I was knee high to a grasshopper. And one clear memory I have is from 1973 when England drew 1-1 with Poland and failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. I read on the internet – so it must be true – that England had 36 shots to Poland’s two and were robbed. I certainly remember England peppering the Poland penalty area but having read subsequent accounts of the game, it was more by way of hoofball, as we launched the ball aimlessly into the air and hoped for the best. I must have been of the view that it was an outrage that England did not qualify for the World Cup because … well … we were England. We were entitled. But we weren’t. In truth, 1974 was not a blip. It merely showed the decline in English football that began some years before.

Alf Ramsey, who won the World Cup for us in 1966, got the boot after that game and we didn’t play another World Cup tournament until 1982. The team then staggered to a World Cup semi-final under Bobby Robson in 1990, only to lose against – guess who? – Germany, something we repeated in Euro 96 under Terry Venables. Those were the highs. There have been many more lows along the way. And that’s because we haven’t been very good. Until Gareth Southgate came along.

Since he became manager in 2016, England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018, the semi-finals of the new Nations League in 2019 and in Euro 2020, which was played in 2021 because of Covid, where we lost the final to Italy on penalties. We lost in the quarter finals of the 2022 World Cup to France who went to lose to Argentina in the final. This is a good record. And now, England have topped our qualifying group for Euro 2024, becoming one of the top seeds because of our excellent record in which we twice beat Italy. But because we didn’t play well in our final games against Malta and North Macedonia, the doom-mongers are out in force. “What if we had played all of Macedonia and not just the north?” “We will never win anything under Southgate.” “We should beat teams like these.” Setting aside the first question, how do you know we will never win anything under Southgate? We’ve never won anything except in 1966 when we were at home in a World Cup of 16 teams. No manager since has managed it, Southgate has got very close on three occasions. And should we beat teams like North Macedonia? On paper, yes, but whoever won a match on paper?

So let’s get rid of a manager who may be on the brink of making England the number one ranked team in the world and appoint someone else. I think Sam Allardyce is free again and the wally with the brolly Steve McClaren is at Man Ure just waiting for the call. Fabio Capello is only 77 and he might have what cliché fans call unfinished business. Sven is still around. Or maybe someone English like Graham Potter, who is resting after being axed by Chelsea. They will ALL do a better job than bloody Southgate, right? How do you know?

Sometimes in a football match, things don’t click. You try and experiment, which you must do before a tournament to see if a player can cope with the step up to international football, and you stumble, passes go astray, you make mistakes, miss chances and you can’t break down a low block. You move the ball around to move the opposition around an critics moan about sideways passing – ‘GET IT FORWARD’. Where’s Mark Hateley and Andy Carroll when you need them? You get it forward and you go nowhere because it’s easier for defender to clear a high ball than it is for a forward to score from one. Fact. There is a point to keeping the ball, to move it around because if you do it properly, with movement from players around and ahead of you, a space will come. But if you are easily bored, the long ball probably suits you better. Don’t complain if you don’t win by playing the long ball, but you will, won’t you? You always do.

Southgate has won 36% of all qualifying knockout games played by England. Ever. He has put together a team with genuine world class players, including one Jude Bellingham who has the potential to be England’s greatest player. His team, if he is able to field it next summer, almost picks itself next summer. The team spirit, and every player says it, is the best it has ever been. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why some fans, actually quite a lot of fans, want to roll the dice again and go for a new boss.

Does Southgate have faults? Of course he does. Some say he is too loyal, which is not the worst fault in my eyes. We can argue about whether it’s time to axe Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips, but then they never let England down, even if the former appears to be an accident waiting to happen these days.

Yes, the players earn far too much, but it’s not their fault. I don’t know anyone who will run to the boss and complain his salary is too high. “Please pay me a bit less.” Not going to happen. But of course they care, far more than many so-called fans who just want to dump a metaphorical bucket of shit over the team when it fails to meet their over-inflated expectations. And like anyone, players have off days. Anyone who has ever played has played like a drain at some time or other. Top players may play crap less often than the rest of us, but it still happens.

Now we are a good international team, we face opposition teams whose overriding ambition is to stop us playing, North Macedonia did it by preparing a terrible pitch, by playing in a low block and by being very niggly. That and a terrible referee who got all the major decisions wrong for both sides made for a grim spectacle, but haters gonna hate, moaners gonna moan. I’ll tell you what. If you’re bored watching your national team during one of the most successful periods in their history, I suggest you do something else. If you don’t relish the possibility of watching Kane, Bellingham, Saka, Rice, Foden, Alexander Arnold and the like compete at the highest levels of the game, then why not dream of the good old days when we didn’t even qualify for World Cups and the likes of Carlton Palmer were regarded as our superstars. And then give your heads a big wobble.

England could win in 2024. A lot of things would have to go right in terms of injuries, suspensions and the odd bit of luck, but the potential is there. If you can’t see it, you aren’t looking. So just watch the fucking Bake Off or I’m A Celebrity instead and leave the England team with people who actually do give a toss about it, who don’t expect England to just turn up and win by right and actually believe that by and large Gareth Southgate has given us a team to be proud of.

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