Southgate's chance to collect reward for patience

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The Independent Football

Gareth Southgate famously gave Mr Mandela a miss. There will be no repeat when Mr Milosevic - Savo rather than Slobodan, that is - returns to the Midlands tonight for a reunion of Aston Villa old boys as England face Serbia & Montenegro in a friendly at Leicester.

Meeting statesmen is all very well, and Southgate is keenly aware of the former South African leader's importance, but the Middlesbrough defender is paid to mark centre-forwards. In the Walkers Stadium, the task will be invested with a significance that goes beyond simply keeping an old colleague quiet.

The absence of Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell gives him the opportunity to seal a place in England's Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia on the home turf of Teesside a week tomorrow. Southgate, aged 32 and with 53 caps spread over eight years, will be the senior half of a partnership with Birmingham City's Matthew Upson, who is 24 and won his only cap as substitute in Durban last month.

So has the eternal squad player's time finally arrived? "I feel I'm playing the best football I've ever played. Whether I'm at my peak, only time will tell. I hope not. I'm confident there's more improvement still to come."

A less mature character might have become disillusioned by understudying the younger Ferdinand and Campbell, who play for the country's top two clubs and enjoy the exposure of high-octane European combat. However, Southgate has never been one to throw his toys out of the pram - he has a new baby called Flynn Harrison to do that - and now his patience may be about to be rewarded.

"The boss has always stuck with Rio and Sol when they have been fit, and I've accepted that. If I were one of those two and was left out, I'd feel aggrieved. But [their unavailability] does give me a chance to play and that's a great feeling. It's why you accept the knocks and the lows, like not being involved in the World Cup finals."

Southgate believes he did "as well as I could" for Middlesbrough during the Premiership campaign, although his overall assessment suggests a hint of frustration. "OK, we didn't qualify for Europe but with the team we had, it was an acceptable season. "

Suitors reportedly include Manchester United and Newcastle, and while he is far too diplomatic to fuel such speculation, he "regrets" not having sampled the Champions' League. "You want to test yourself against the best, but you don't get everything. Playing at the highest level in Europe probably keeps you a bit sharper too, because the style is different from the Premiership. So it counts against you [in England terms], but for the right reasons."

Not that he feels the chance has passed him by. A defender's instincts, he argues, improve "with age and repeated exposure to certain situations"; in other words, with experience. The imperious displays of several thirtysomething defenders in last week's Champions' League final proved as much. "I only saw bits of it," Southgate said, adding with a laugh: "I was otherwise occupied since my wife was giving birth at the time."

Tonight could represent the birth of a new central-defensive duo: Southgate and Upson. "I've not seen a lot of Matt, though Martin Keown spoke very highly of him at Arsenal. He has had an incredible season - being on loan to Reading gave him a taste of first-team football. Then he moved to Birmingham and did really well.

"I doubt this match will faze him. He worked with world-class players at Highbury, so I don't envisage his having too many problems. But every England game is important. People said South Africa was insignificant, yet Frank Lampard came on and did especially well.

"The other thing about playing Serbia is that none of us can afford to go three weeks without a match. This will be crucial in helping us keep a physical and mental focus on Slovakia next week, which we all know is the big one."

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