Southgate, United and the missing link

Veteran defender proves there is no substitute for class and experience as England call again
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The Independent Football

Talk about picking your moment. In an admirable exhibition of defending at Old Trafford throughout Wednesday night's victory by the Middlesbrough team he captains, Gareth Southgate would have had Sir Alex Ferguson scraping the paintwork with his fingernails in a desperate attempt to reopen that transfer window while simultaneously convincing Sven Goran Eriksson what an England asset he remains.

It may be too late for the Manchester United manager, who could live to rue his failure to supplement his side with a defender at the zenith of his form, his belief apparently being that Wes Brown's return from a long-term injury would compensate for the loss of Rio Ferdinand for the remainder of the season. But Eriksson got the message, so much so he named him last night in his squad for the friendly in Portugal this week.

The manner in which Southgate thwarted Ryan Giggs with an impeccably timed challenge in the area and, late on, denied John O'Shea an equaliser by thrusting his frame into the path of the Irishman's goalbound effort were examples of defending at its most instinct-ive and courageous. The favourable reviews Southgate has subsequently earned were well merited. "It's nice to play at Old Trafford, no question, and I know that it's important I play well in the big matches like that if I'm to have a chance of being in the frame for England this summer," he said.

The loss to club and country of Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate's injury suggested that the 33-year-old would resume his England career. Southgate was aware that youth, in the shape of Birmingham's returning linchpin Matthew Upson and the Tottenham duo of Anthony Gardner and Ledley King, could have turned Eriksson's head. But last night's squad bulletin allayed such fears.

"It was unfortunate I had to pull out of the last squad, but I think my performances have been good since then," he said. "This is my third season at Middlesbrough, and I think that this has possibly been the best three years of my career in terms of form." Wednesday's display was evidence that experience remains a highly sought-after commodity. "I believe defenders mature as they get older, and you never stop learning your trade," the former Crystal Palace and Aston Villa player said. "Experience is very important in my position. I would just ask to be judged on form rather than anything else, and I'm happy that mine stands up against anyone else in the country."

Are not this year's European Championship finals in Portugal, eight years on from that penalty miss, an unrealistic target? "It's an ambition, obviously, I'd love to go," said the man who boasts 55 caps. "But what will be, will be. I'm quite relaxed about it. If I go, it would be fantastic; if I don't, well, I've had a fantastic time with England up to now."

How well Eriksson remains disposed towards him is another matter, following the publication last year of a book in which he questioned the coach's management style, suggesting it lacked inspiration. But Southgate maintained: "My dealings with him have been very good. I've never had any clash. Because I've spoken about his management style being very laid-back, and that he's not one for making big speeches, people have taken that as a criticism. I was really trying just to give a sense of the way his style is. I like to think I've always played well for him, and I've totally understood when I haven't been played recently that it's because he's wanted to bring some of the younger players through."

It was an open secret that Ferguson was considering a move for him last month. Who knows why he neglected to do so? Some have suggested that the articulate and thoughtful player may have been a little too opinionated for the Scot's taste. Southgate himself merely shrugs off the rumours that were afoot with typical sang-froid. "Let's not fool ourselves, to play for Manchester United would have been the ultimate for any English player," he said. "I was aware of all the speculation, but nobody contacted me, and as far as [Middlesbrough manager] Steve McClaren was concerned, he just told me that nothing would happen. I suspect at the time that Middlesbrough wouldn't have wanted to let me go, anyway."

He adds: "Clearly, Rio is a big loss for any team, given his quality. On Wednesday night, United didn't have Gary Neville, who's a good organiser. They've got a lot of good young defenders, but maybe they find it difficult when things are going badly. They probably need a bit of help along the way. Wes Brown has only just come back from knee surgery, so it's asking a lot of him, but he'll be a good player - as will John O'Shea."

Though Southgate would not dream of making the connection himself, by implication it is apparent that United crucially lack the type of experienced defensive organiser he embodies. Ferguson's loss is Boro's continued gain, particularly with their Carling Cup final against Sam Allardyce's side at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in two weeks' time. Southgate watched the Leicester-Bolton League game during which two of Allardyce's men were told to lurk near the goal - ostensibly in an offside position, but apparently not under the revised interpretations - whenever the visitors were awarded free-kicks outside the area.

"It has confused things, and Bolton took advantage of that the other night," Southgate said. "It could deteriorate into a slightly farcical situation if this one isn't cleared up fairly quickly. But all I would say is that if a player's in the penalty area he's interfering with play. I don't care whether it's first phase, second phase, or whatever. I'm glad it's been highlighted now. It would be annoying to go into the final against Bolton and lose to a goal, when later the interpretation of the law may have changed again. I just feel there should be some clarification, so that we're all clear what's allowed and what's not. Maybe a referee should come round to every club and explain it."