Gareth Southgate is living proof that timing is everything in sport. Not only is he fast becoming Sven Goran Eriksson's preferred first choice at the heart of the England defence, the Middlesbrough centre-back is now also emerging as a genuine contender to assume the captain's duties in David Beckham's absence.
Today's FA Cup semi-final against the country's most potent attacking force of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Sylvain Wiltord is the perfect platform for Southgate to demonstrate his commanding defensive skills. His responsibilities, though, will not end there. With Paul Ince suspended for the tie against Arsenal, Southgate will be handed the captain's arm-band for the first time in his nine-month Boro career. And all this, of course, in front of the England manager's gaze at Old Trafford this afternoon.
Southgate, who is often labelled as the thinking man's footballer, is wise enough not to put too much pressure on himself ahead of the match, but even he must be aware of the increasing limelight. "This is a big game for everyone at the club," he says, "not just for me. This is a great chance for us to reach the final of a major competition, so we are all keen to do well. But, yes, it is true that there is an extra incentive for all the players who might be involved in the World Cup. No one wants to be left out at this stage, and everybody wants to stake a claim in the starting XI. It's going to be hard work."
So, too, will defeating Arsenal. Arsène Wenger's men are riding high in the Premiership and have the best away record in the League. Middlesbrough, though, have found Old Trafford a happy hunting ground in the last four years, winning there three times. "We know Arsenal will be a tough test for us but we're confident going into the game," Southgate says.
It was the victory against the Old Trafford landlords in the fourth round that finally kickstarted their season. The 2-0 win at the Riverside was watched by only 17,000 disgruntled fans who thought their team were heading for the Nationwide. Today, Steve McClaren's men stand at the gates of Europe. "To be honest," Southgate says, "we could not be in any better form going into this match. We've become tough to beat and that is highlighted by just two defeats since the turn of the year."
Southgate, who is 32, adds: "Arsenal will be the favourites, but Manchester United were given that tag in the fourth round and look what happened there. We surprised most of the country then, so let's hope we can do it again. We're rank outsiders and not many people are giving us a chance, but we know what to expect."
There can be few surprises left at the club. Following a disastrous start to the Premiership season, when Middlesbrough lost four matches in succession and were rooted to the foot of the table, McClaren's revolution has gradually taken shape. The former Derby and Manchester United coach's ideas are now making an impact on Teesside. "I came here to help the manager transform the club and you can see that has started to happen," says Southgate, who has been arguably the most consistent defender in the Premiership this season. "There is still a lot of work to be done, but we are moving in the proper direction.
"To have reached the semi-final has been a tremendous bonus for everyone. When we started in the Cup competition, our League form wasn't good and we went into it just hoping to win a few games. But the Cup, by beating teams like Manchester United, Blackburn and Everton, has given us belief in the League and helped us move up the table. It has been the spark for our season."
Middlesbrough start today's match with a 120-year-old trophy cabinet which remains bare but is crammed with optimism. "Obviously the further we have gone, the more exciting it has become," Southgate says, "and although playing a team as good as Arsenal is never going to be easy, we believe we can get to the final. We are on a fantastic run of form and we are taking that into the semi-final with us. Who knows what can happen."
Alen Boksic will be back to lead the attack, but the other key creative component, Benito Carbone, is Cup-tied following his outing with Derby County in the third round. He may not be playing, but the Italian will be cheering his team-mates on from the sidelines. "When I joined Boro there was perhaps a lack of self-belief, but I have noticed the difference now," Carbone says. "The dressing room is like a family and everyone is together. This is down to the manager and our superb defence. For that, Gareth Southgate deserves much praise."Reuse content