Life will never be the same for Gareth Southgate after the summer of '96. He talked to Phil Shaw

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW
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As the final bars of "God Save the Queen" drifted into the ether, Gareth Southgate almost pinched himself to be sure it was really happening. Never mind the patriotic ritual at Wembley - this was the Sex Pistols snarling through their alternative anthem in Finsbury Park.

Twenty-four hours after helping England squeeze into the semi-final of Euro 96, Southgate accompanied Stuart Pearce to the punk veterans' reunion thrash. Pearce, partial to a pogo in his youth, was invited to be master of ceremonies. In the spirit of collective responsibility, he shared the duties with his team-mate.

Their reception from the massed Mohicans - hardly football's traditional constituency - epitomised the euphoria that was sweeping England like a virus. "Twelve months earlier I wouldn't have been asked to announce the Croydon Male Voice Choir," Southgate says, tickled by the memory. "Yet there we were, introducing the Sex Pistols in front of 30,000 people.

"The whole thing was bizarre, but typical of how the tournament took off and how things went for me. We laughed about it all the way home. I said to Pearcey: 'This is getting ridiculous', but it summed up the mood of the country.

"It was fantastic to be involved in something that had such an impact. When we drove from the hotel to the games I couldn't believe the crowds lining the roads. It was brilliant that as footballers we could have such a positive influence, because our reputation isn't the best at times."

When unity soured into anarchy in the UK, or at least in Trafalgar Square and streets from Dover to Carlisle, the mayhem had nothing to do with the artist formerly known as Rotten. Its rationale, fuelled by foreign lager and loathing of foreigners, was the save by Andreas Kopke from Southgate which meant that Germany, rather than England, won the penalty shoot-out to reach the final.

The images of Terry Venables and Jurgen Klinsmann trying to console a distraught Southgate went round the world. The irony was bitter indeed, for the 25-year-old Aston Villa defender's intelligence, poise and versatility had come to embody England's revival under Venables.

The previous summer, he was the relatively anonymous captain of relegated Crystal Palace. Suddenly he was a national figure and even his mother was persuaded to reveal that she had asked: "Why didn't you just belt it, son?" By the time Germany celebrated their final triumph, Southgate and his girlfriend Alison had escaped to Bali.

The respite was blissful, if brief. On Saturday, the public scrutiny resumes when Villa visit Sheffield Wednesday in the Premiership. Southgate goes into a fresh campaign aware that things will never be quite the same again.

"In my mind's eye nothing has changed and I'm the same person I was last season. I don't wake up in the morning and think: 'I'm Gareth Southgate of Aston Villa and England' or re-live the penalty. But of course everything's different."

With hindsight the catalyst for the changes was Brian Little. Having paid pounds 2m for a midfielder never likely to stimulate season-ticket sales, the Villa manager deployed him in a three-man defence. "It took me a couple of weeks to see that a position at the back with the freedom to come forward was perfect for me. The boss had already spotted it."

Southgate's conversion also tied in with Venables' vision, although he did not start an international until this year. "I had thought, in a sort of fantasy world, that the European Championship in England would have been an ideal time to break into the team. Four years ago, when I was watching the finals on television on holiday in Portugal, I turned to my best friend and said: 'It would be great to be involved in that in '96.'

"I never said any more to anybody but I'm an ambitious person and it was definitely a target in the back of my mind. When it got to last pre- season and I wasn't even in the squad I thought: 'Well, it's not actually going to happen, is it?'"

But it did and the rest, to coin a phrase, is his story. After a tension- drenched draw with Switzerland came the Scots. "What really bugged us about the build-up was that people were claiming it meant more to Scotland. Let's be honest, though: if David Seaman hadn't saved the penalty that might have been it for us."

Southgate maintains that in the afterglow of England's 4-1 rout of the Netherlands - "a very special performance" - Venables did not receive the credit he deserved. "He studied the Dutch for two years and came up with a game plan which involved switching to a flat back four. I didn't enjoy it as much as everyone else because I had to mark Dennis Bergkamp. People say: 'It must have been great' and I tell them: 'Actually it was bloody hard work'!"

The team as a whole found Spain harder, scraping by on penalties. When the Anglo-German epic also ended in stalemate and England's frontline quintet all scored from 12 metres, it was a measure of the maturity Southgate had shown that this inexperienced international was asked to take only the second spot-kick of his career.

"Of course I knew we might be out if I failed, but you can't allow that to get to you any more than if you're playing in sudden-death extra time. One misplaced pass on the edge of your penalty area...

"Ultimately I can't escape from the fact that it was my kick that decided our fate. I was watching TV the other night and there was a trailer for a programme which cut between a bar scene and my penalty. I just sat there and thought: 'God, there it is again!' But it's pointless trying to hide from it. After all, I may have to take one for Villa in Europe.

"There were emotions I could only share with those close to me, but I didn't want people thinking 'poor old Southgate'. All I know is that however low I felt, the reaction of the rest of the country helped me through it. I received literally thousands of letters, all supportive bar three."

After the Germany game, he returned to his home of two weeks to find Her Majesty's press camped outside. "I wasn't best pleased although they were mostly sympathetic. What disappointed me more was that they doorstepped my mum, who's in her sixties and not used to dealing with the media. She was upset because she was worried she might have turned people against me."

Fat chance. Southgate found himself in demand with chat shows and newspapers, rather as Paul Gascoigne had been after his tears at Italia 90. One magazine offered him and Alison pounds 40,000 for their exclusive story. "But I didn't want to make money out of the situation. The reaction of the public was so superb that it was obscene to think of cashing in on it."

Ribbing from the Villa players - "Here he is, the one who cost us a place in the final" - has helped him put matters in perspective. You know it is no mere platitude when he says: "I've got to look forward now."

To that end, he hopes desperately that Glenn Hoddle will allow him to "start putting the world to rights". Southgate's flexibility ought to put him high on the new England coach's list for the World Cup qualifier in Moldova on 1 September, and he is determined his reluctant celebrity status will not make him lose sight of the application which earned him recognition in the first place.

Far from Euro 96 leaving him restless for a bigger stage, and notwithstanding the consensus that Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool will again carve up the title race, he is more than content to keep wearing one lion on the shirt. Villa, he is confident, are equipped to improve on last season's fourth place and Coca-Cola Cup success.

"I firmly believe I can achieve the things I want to here. Potentially we're as big as anyone. I mentioned last season that I'd like to go and play abroad in the future and someone wrote to the local paper saying: 'He's only just arrived and already he's talking about leaving'. I do think players need challenges but I didn't mean I'd be off next week."

The influx of foreign players is "a positive development", he argues, which will enhance a spectacle that has already improved greatly since the time, barely five years ago, when Palace were one of several sides prospering with a long-ball game. However, as his club's players' union representative he is also concerned that a balance is struck between importing the Viallis and Ravanellis and not "crowding out" young talent.

Talking of which, he had to smile when Alan Shearer joined Newcastle for a king's ransom, having had "the misfortune" to play against his England colleague all the way up from junior level. "Even in Southampton's youth team Alan was always the outstanding player: quick, stronger than anyone else and so focused. He's a very impressive individual, probably the only player in the country who could handle the pressure of a pounds 15m move."

Modesty forbids Gareth Southgate to suggest that he might also be blessed with the requisite temperament, and Villa are not selling anyway. But whisper it on Tyneside: a third, or even half, of such an outlay for a defender of his quality would arguably have been money better spent.

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