It is one thing to be young and on the fringes of Sven Goran Eriksson's England; it is quite another to have turned 30 and still be hoping to squeeze into a World Cup squad.
When all the emphasis is on youth and promise; on Ashley Cole, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, Gareth Southgate seems to belong to a different age. The last clear memory most have of him in an England shirt was being forced into line as a makeshift midfielder on the disastrous, rain-soaked afternoon against the Germans when time was called on both Wembley and Kevin Keegan's career in international management.
And yet, as Teddy Sheringham proved with a deft header to notch England's first equaliser against Greece last month, there is much to be said for the canniness of an old pro. At 31, Southgate is four years younger than the Tottenham captain and remains a credible candidate in an area where England under Eriksson have never truly convinced – defence.
Especially against the Greeks, who came within an ace of embarrassing England at Old Trafford last month, the centre-halves have been a source of concern. Even in the afterglow of the wondrous 5-1 triumph in Munich, the displays of Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand nagged away in a small corner of the brain. Should Southgate shine against the Swedes tomorrow, he may yet find himself a central figure in Eriksson's plans.
"You can look at the whole team after the Greece game and say there was room for improvement," he said. "If there wasn't then that would be a concern. You look at our players and sometimes you think there is no limit to what could be achieved. But the players are still developing; they are going to experience hiccups."
Asked to compare the team that Eriksson will take to Japan and South Korea with the one that prepared for the last World Cup, Southgate says there is "an innocence" about this squad, adding: "Sometimes that's great but against Greece when things were not going well, it can be double edged."
Southgate is one of three survivors from the last England squad to enjoy a successful tournament; although missing the penalty that denied Terry Venables' team a place in the final of the European Championships may have soured the memory. "You go in to win the tournament and, if you don't, that ultimately has to be considered a failure," he said of Euro 96.
"People who have been in football for 10 years can be quite cynical about the game but the players that reached the semi-finals in 1996 and didn't get as far as we hoped in 1998 will still want to prove a point. I feel that way and I'm sure Gary Neville and Teddy Sheringham do as well."
This season, Southgate has felt reinvigorated. Having finally been allowed to leave Aston Villa after two years of unconcealed dissatisfaction with the regime, he encountered at Middlesbrough a manager in Steve McClaren whose views he openly shares. "The thing that strikes me more than anything else is his attention to detail. From a player's point of view, you need to go into a game on a Saturday feeling you have covered everything. You can work on fitness, but if a manager goes through all the scenarios and the unknowns that gives you tremendous confidence when you go into battle."
Although McClaren's managerial career began with four straight defeats, Southgate did not believe his dual role with Eriksson has undermined his authority at the Riverside. "When we had a bad start it was an issue. But he's away for two days when the first team are training and he has a coaching staff who are more than capable of dealing with that situation.
"I heard people say he was finding management harder than coaching but you can't imagine the changes that have to be made when a new manager goes in, working with new players and getting your ideas over to them. For people to have been writing him off at that early stage I found incredible but that's the way it's been going when you see the number of managers who are out of work."
One of the most interesting aspects of McClaren's arrival at Middlesbrough was his appointment of the sports psychologist, Bill Beswick, as assistant manager, a move that drew a snort of derision from more traditional football men.
"His role will become more significant as things go on. He has tried to work through the coaches rather than with the players directly. All top sportsmen work with sports psychologists but the fact that he was given the title of assistant manager raised a few eyebrows. Golfers and tennis players wouldn't be without these people and nor should footballers."Reuse content