Gareth Southgate: 'It doesn't bother me if the players call me gaffer or Gareth...'

As Middlesbrough's rookie manager Gareth Southgate prepares to take on Sir Alex Ferguson today, he tells Andy Hunter how he survived the furore over his appointment, that his team is still not playing the football he would like... and why he can deal with the unpopularity that comes with the job
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Sitting in the corner of a small marquee in Middlesbrough, where he has just fulfilled one of the myriad of managerial duties and unveiled a new community sports project, Gareth Southgate remains unflustered by the autograph-hunters, well-wishers, sponsors and local dignitaries who congregate while he holds court with the media.

Maintaining focus while surrounded by organised chaos comes easily to the Middlesbrough manager these days. There has, after all, been ample opportunity for practice since he replaced the England-bound Steve McClaren and ignited a controversy that continues to burn over his right to the job.

With special dispensation granted 10 days ago by the Premier League to continue in the role until the end of the season, despite not possessing the Uefa Pro Licence, the A Licence or even the B Licence required to coach in this country, Southgate - who aims to be on course for all three qualifications by next summer - has survived the first serious test of his managerial credentials but knows his profession remains divided on his presence among them.

Colleagues who have paid over £7,000 to obtain badges intended to bring English football into line with the rest of the Continent have questioned the ease with which Boro have circumnavigated the rules, particularly when some of the graduates are now out of work, while the loopholes that both Southgate and his Newcastle counterpart, Glenn Roeder, have exploited have left the Premier League, the Football Association and the League Managers' Association searching for a way to fast-track players through the coaching system.

Southgate has not shied away from the controversy. "There hasn't been a lot of opposition to my face, although there was some, understandably, from senior figures in the game such as Graham Taylor and Howard Wilkinson," the 36-year-old explains. "I've spoken to all of them since and I respect the fact they were not talking about me as an individual but the principle. I've no problem with any of them. I greatly respect what they have done and, as I said to all of them, these are the type of people I'd like to be able to phone for advice in the future. What I also told them was that I've been given an opportunity that obviously I was never going to turn down."

It underlines Southgate's reputation that while many question his elevation, few doubt the cerebral former centre-half's potential to succeed - and certainly not the Middlesbrough chairman, Steve Gibson, who is believed to have prepared a new five-year contract for his bold appointment only five months after finalising the last one. His manager's commitment cannot be questioned either. To meet the Premier League's criteria for keeping his job Southgate must complete his B Licence - "Which I've virtually done now" - and his A Licence, which involves somehow making room for 240 hours of study during the season, before next summer.

"Life is never dull," he admits. "I've got a lot of work to do in the classroom as well as a lot of work at the football club. That's why we've got a lot of large candles at home to help me get through my work at night."

Support for Southgate has arrived from those who question the need for managerial qualifications at all, and there will be no more suitable illustration of their argument than at The Riverside this evening. It is there that a man with 26 weeks' experience in management will confront an opponent in Sir Alex Ferguson who, at the end of his 1,044th week at Manchester United alone, is perched on top of the Premiership and remains the man all of his peers wish to emulate and defeat. Pro-Licence or no Pro-Licence, there are some examinations a lifetime in the classroom cannot prepare you for.

Ferguson, a committee member of the LMA, warmed up for a meeting yesterday by laying the blame for Southgate's appointment firmly up the road at Newcastle. "The regulations were set out to improve the standard of coaching for people coming into the game," the United manager said. "That was changed by Freddy Shepherd when he rounded on other chairman to get it changed to allow him to have Glenn Roeder, which we thought was wrong. Once the door was opened by Freddy Shepherd, Middlesbrough were completely correct in giving the job to Gareth Southgate under the same principle that Glenn Roeder got it, although Gareth Southgate is completely different to Glenn Roeder because the job was thrust upon him. The fact both of them are taking the badges now shows the principle is correct. It's nothing personal. It's the regulations. They were put in place and they should have remained."

"I read Sir Alex's autobiography when I was playing and I still remember a lot of what he said in that," Southgate says. "It would be foolish not to take on board what he has done and what he has said. You take note of what he has been through. For someone in my position there are two things that stand out. What he did at Aberdeen, where he achieved an enormous amount of success and won a European final. And to me as a younger manager that is inspirational to see that you can make a difference at a smaller club.

"The other thing is the difficulties he had when he first arrived at United. The pressure was on him all the time and it took a long while for him to build that club into what he has.

"I'm just in my first job in management and that is a reminder to me that it will take a while to get to where I want to take this club. When you try to achieve things you are going to suffer knock-backs along the way in any walk of life. It is recovering from those and keeping the vision of where you want the club to go that is so important."

Talk of pitfalls along the path to a long-term target is standard fare among new managers invariably appointed because a club is in peril. Yet surely it should be different with Southgate? He has inherited a position at Middlesbrough vacated by the FA's decision to appoint his predecessor as the England head coach, a judgement that would presumably guarantee that McClaren had left a fine body of work behind on Teesside.

His successor - and the Middlesbrough support who enjoyed an incredible run to the Uefa Cup final last season yet have not forgotten a mediocre Premiership campaign - would beg to differ.

Having publicly doubted McClaren's experience for the international job while still in his employ at Middlesbrough, only to then encourage the same scepticism through his own appointment, Southgate is reluctant to deliver a stinging critique of the England manager's five-year Riverside reign. It is clear, however, that the new manager believes he is like many others in his fledgling position, and has inherited a squad in need of major refurbishment and extensive work on the training ground.

Southgate explains: "I don't think there are false expectations within the club because we reached the Uefa Cup final last season, and I would include our fans in that. They lived through the League programme last season and they know there is an enormous amount of work to be done. I said when I got the job that I wanted to attack, I wanted to do a lot of different things, and that is still the way I want to go forward but I also have to accept that, at the moment, we are not playing that way.

"It is going to take a lot of work on the training ground to get us there. The League wasn't a good season for us last year. We finished 14th and people might say we underachieved but that is where we finished after 38 games so the need for improvement is clear to everybody."

Unsurprisingly, given the red tape he has waded through to get his man, the Middlesbrough chairman, Gibson, shares his manager's assessment that the club needed a new long-term strategy to maximise the potential of its fine youth academy and established figures, rather than paying inflated fees and wages to entice exotic names to Teesside. By investing his trust and judgement in the untested Southgate, Gibson has also ensured that any immediate pressure on his appointment will be imagined and not real.

"People talk about pressure and instant results but what I have to do is get results in the short term while developing the club in the longer term," says Southgate. "The way we are playing at the moment, the style of play, isn't my long term vision of what I want for the club but I have to get results with the players we have got. I would love to play a more expansive, attacking game. That is what our fans want to see, what I as a player would want to play in and as a supporter would want to watch.

"At the moment we are very short of attacking options and in the first three games of the season we conceded eight goals and it was fortunate that I was able to sign some great talents [he glances over his shoulder to where Jonathan Woodgate is being interviewed in the opposite corner of the marquee] to give us a base to work from. The chairman and the chief executive, Keith Lamb, said to me from the start that this is a long-term plan. They are not just looking at what is happening on the field now. Getting the club to evolve is the most important thing."

Evolution rarely overwhelms supporters, however, who have not been unequivocal in their backing for Southgate, and have accused him of maintaining the negative philosophy of the previous regime. Ironically, down in Soho Square, McClaren will know just how that feels. The Middlesbrough tradition of taking prized scalps and stumbling against more humble opposition has continued, the 2-1 win over Chelsea followed by a 4-0 home reverse to Portsmouth five days later being a classic case in point (although they will hope the tradition persists when United visit today) with the style of play, as Southgate readily admits, already a contentious issue.

The manager has not revolutionised his working practices either. Southgate did not insist on a name change from his players on his first day in the job and continues to perform the duties he embraced as the club captain, such as this opening of a multi-use sports facility in the Whinney Banks area of Middlesbrough courtesy of a £600,000 investment from the Barclays Spaces for Sports scheme and the Football Foundation, with whom he works closely. He is adamant, however, that change will come.

"It doesn't bother me if the players call me gaffer or Gareth. They'll respect me by what they do, not by what they say or call me. People can call you gaffer but it doesn't mean they have respect for you," he reasons. "As time goes on you make unpopular decisions and there becomes a natural distance between you and the players. I got on well with pretty much all of the guys when I was playing but now I am more demanding of them, where I used to put an arm around their shoulders. It has been a massive change in my life. It is a 24-7 job. It is all encompassing."

Southgate was on holiday in America with his wife, Alison, and young family when Gibson called with the offer of the Middlesbrough post that Terry Venables had declined. Encouraged by his wife to accept, despite the inevitable repercussions for their family life, the 36-year-old abandoned plans for the easy life and began making his calls to Wilkinson, Taylor et al. What Southgate did not mention in their telephone conversations, but which explains why he embraced Gibson's invitation and all of its inevitable controversies, is that he desperately needed it.

"I needed a fresh challenge," Southgate reveals. "I knew that, playing wise, I could never reach the top once I'd retired with England and it was just personal pride that kept me going. Sometimes you need more than that. I must admit, when my international career finished I found that difficult, because that was the pinnacle for me. We were not going to challenge for the championship with Boro, and I'd played in FA Cup and League Cup finals previously so there was nothing new.

"As it turned out the run to the Uefa Cup final was a shining beacon for me, that kept me going, but I wouldn't have had the same enthusiasm for playing this season as I do for the job I have now. You do get to a stage in your playing career where the hunger isn't quite there. Now my enthusiasm has been rekindled."

The Young Ones: The five youngest managers in Premiership history

* 1 CHRIS COLEMAN

Coleman became the Premiership's youngest ever manager at 32 years 11 months and five days when he took charge of Fulham's 2-2 draw against Southampton in April 2003.

Played 154, Won 57, Drawn 63, Lost 34 (Premiership games)

* 2 AIDY BOOTHROYD

The Watford manager was 35 years 6 months and 11 days old when Everton beat his newly promoted side 2-1 in August 2006. Boothroyd is in his first full-time managerial position at the Hertfordshire club.

P 14, W 1, D 6, L 7

* 3 GLENN HODDLE

Hoddle was 35 years 9 months and 18 days old when his Chelsea side lost 2-1 to Blackburn in August 1993. He later managed Southampton and Tottenham in the Premiership.

P 313, W 116, D 113, L 84

* 4 GARETH SOUTHGATE

Southgate was 35 years 11 months and 16 days old when he retired from playing to take his first managerial job at Middlesbrough. Unfortunately, his team sacrificed a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 to Premiership newcomers Reading in August 2006.

P 14, W 4, D 4, L 6

* 5 PETER REID

The Manchester City manager was 36 years 1 month and 28 days old when his side drew 1-1 with Queen's Park Rangers on the opening day of the first Premiership season in August 1992.

P 117, W 42, D 34, L 41

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