Football: Southgate presents a United front

A self-confessed Old Trafford fan intends to beat Alex Ferguson's Red Devils to the Premiership title
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The Independent Online
WATFORD-BORN, Crawley-educated, and a Manchester United fan? Surely not? It is true but, as ever with Gareth Southgate, there is a sensible explanation.

Between the crucial ages of seven and nine he lived in Bury, a few miles from Old Trafford.

Had his family stayed in the north he may have preceded his near-neighbours Gary and Phil Neville into United's youth scheme but, instead, he joined Crystal Palace's programme and, by the time he got to Old Trafford, it was as a player, not a fan, and he no longer looked for United's results first.

He does now, though, for United are the closest pursuers to the Aston Villa side that top the Premiership which Southgate will lead out at Stamford Bridge this afternoon. The England defender was rested for Villa's 4-1 midweek Worthington Cup defeat to Chelsea, and was clearly missed. Today, with he and Gareth Barry back in defensive harness alongside Ugo Ehiogu, Villa are likely to be much tighter - in 10 league games they have conceded three goals.

"We're very pleased," said Southgate when we met. "The main thing is everyone is enjoying it. Being top of the league brings its own pressures and if we are still there in a few weeks I'm sure it will [bring pressure] but the manager is enjoying it and so are we."

So content is Southgate that, a year after publicly criticising the club for an apparent lack of ambition, the Villa captain has just signed a new five-year contract.

"I came out and said things because I wanted what was best for the club," he said. "Now everybody is geared to being successful. We have added sensibly to the squad, the money is there but the manager has said he wants to spend it in his own time and I think that is right. I would be mad to be anything less than happy now."

This is reflected in his form which is possibly the best of his career.

The manager, John Gregory, has said his form has gone onto a different plane and Southgate responded: "That's very flattering. I do enjoy going out every Saturday with something to play for, it brings more out of you. Last year we had blown the league after four games [all lost].

"The manager's been excellent. Since he came he has breathed new life into the club and got the players pulling in the same direction. There's no great secret, everyone is working hard and sometimes when you are doing that you get the luck.

"I feel disappointed for Brian [Little, the previous manager] because it was the players that let him down and, with one or two additions and one or two gone out, it is the same players there.

"The foundations were there and John has built on that. He was given the opportunity at a big club and made it clear from the start he was going to grasp it. He wasn't at all in awe of the job. He brought an excellent coach with him in Steve Harrison and has managed to get players back enjoying themselves."

The World Cup also helped Southgate, despite suffering injury and the disappointment of England's exit. "I was pleased with my form in the matches that I had," he said. "It gave me great confidence to know I had played in the biggest tournament of all and acquitted myself well."

Playing in a back three at Villa helps his England game although, when Tony Adams is fit, he plays to the side for the national team rather than in the central role.

"I'm comfortable playing any of the three but centre is probably my strongest position. You feel in charge of the defence, you're pulling the strings and I enjoy organising. If Tony plays it means a little bit of adjustment. He's going to be the one pushing people around and so on. You need that, if you're a wider player you need someone to shout, to push you in and be there behind you.

"I feel very privileged to play alongside Tony, I'm full of admiration for him as a player and a person. Having been someone who had played a lot in midfield, working with him taught me lot about defending. He's been brought up in a back four and that type of work - squeezing the play, etc - does not always happen in a three.

Southgate did begin as a defender, albeit from the `if in doubt, kick it out' school which then prevailed at Palace. He led the youth, reserve and first teams, moving into midfield and stayed through one relegation before leaving after the second, partly because he had publicly sided with the departing manager, Alan Smith, against the chairman, Ron Noades. Villa paid pounds 2.5m and moved him back to defence alongside Paul McGrath. A year later he was playing in Euro 96.

Then came that penalty miss, followed by an understandable dip in form. He remained approachable then, treating triumph and despair with equanimity, and continues to do so now.

This is partly due to being naturally articulate, he left school with eight O-levels, including A grades at English language and literature, and would have gone into journalism had an apprenticeship at Palace not beckoned. He has since written for a variety of publications, currently pens a column for the London Evening Standard - a rare distinction for someone playing outside the capital - and is capable of writing his own copy. He is thus comfortable with the press and is often produced to face them when England are under pressure.

All this has led some, in an often ungrateful media, to christen him `The Apologist' but his openness is to be prized and encouraged, especially as he is a future candidate to be England's captain.

"There are plenty of players with more experience and a fair few ahead of me," is Southgate's reaction. But Paul Merson said of him: "He's a leader like Tony Adams, someone people look up to in the dressing room."

For now Southgate is concentrating on Villa. "We're there to be shot at and we've some big tests coming up," he said. Starting with Chelsea today...

Having lost their six-month unbeaten run to the Blues' reserves on Wednesday, Villa have much to prove. This time, however, they will have their captain leading by example.

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