Southgate thinking big with Little

Phil Shaw meets the former Palace captain settling in to life at the Villa
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The Independent Online
One night at Selhurst Park and Eric Cantona would never be quite the same again. Seven years there convinced Gareth Southgate, captain of the "other" team that fateful evening, it was time to kick-start his own career by vacating a Palace for a Villa in the summer.

Months of what Southgate describes as "internal wrangling" at Crystal Palace, during which he publicly backed Alan Smith in the manager's vain power struggle with the chairman, Ron Noades, had culminated in relegation. To some - mindful of how Aston Villa avoided the drop only on the final day and of Doug Ellis's image as a hands-on proprietor - his pounds 2.5m transfer evoked the words frying pan and fire.

In the event, it was out of midfield and into defence. Southgate, 25 and uncapped at any level, has made the transition so assuredly that his new manager, Brian Little, maintains he would be an asset to England. Villa enter tomorrow's derby at Coventry, where he faces a fellow Palace escapee John Salako, among the Premiership pacesetters. As for Deadly Doug, any potential conflict was swiftly smoothed out.

"I stayed at the chairman's house the night I signed because we had a press conference in the morning," Southgate recalls, aware that his team- mates will mock the confession mercilessly. "His wife even ironed my shirt, which I had to smile about after all the trouble at Palace."

But then Southgate was always a reluctant rebel. Affable, articulate and steady, he is almost an anti-maverick. Nevertheless, he shares Cantona's readiness to stand up for what he believes is right; hence his outspoken support for Smith. While he is already players' union rep at Villa, his view is that footballers should join in feuds between managers and chairmen only in exceptional circumstances.

"I felt very strongly about the situation at Palace, probably because I knew too much," he recalls. "With hindsight, I became too involved in the politics of the club and wrapped up in the team at the expense of my own game. It was difficult to avoid that because I'd been there a long time and had a genuine feeling for the club. Everything that happened I took as a personal affront.

"But hand on heart, I can say that I couldn't have done more to keep us up. All the letters I've had from Palace supporters have thanked me and wished me luck."

The sadness Southgate felt on leaving the club who gave him his break was outweighed by relief that he could concentrate on his day job again. Villa, whose flirtation with relegation he had not even noticed because he was so immersed in Palace's plight, attracted him by virtue of their squad, stadium, support and the unity of purpose between manager and chairman.

"If you start at a place like this," he says, surveying Villa's Continental- style training centre in rural Warwickshire, "there's a danger of taking it for granted. When you've trained in the mud at Mitcham, and had cold showers there, coming here is like entering a different world. You appreciate it that much more."

Above all, Southgate wanted to further his football education. "I'd been stuck in a side who played a long-ball game," he explains, "which definitely hindered my development as a midfield player."

Ironically, Mrs Ellis had barely unplugged her iron before Little bought Mark Draper as his playmaker. Southgate was asked to switch to the left of a three-man defence. When he says he regarded it as a challenge, rather than a setback, it has more to do with attitude than platitude.

He had actually started as a centre-back, a graduate of the "Get rid" school of defending, before Steve Coppell converted him to midfield. Now he is expected to use the ball constructively and is given what he calls "licence to roam". Last week's slalom run and goal against Peterborough, like the three he put past Villa last season, suggests they acquired two players for the price of one.

Far from diminishing his England prospects, Southgate thinks his "new" role may have enhanced them. "It's important that we follow the Europeans in finding defenders who are comfortable on the ball. Villa's system is well suited to international football in that while we can all bring the ball out from the back, we never look like conceding many either."

Another difference for Southgate, which he finds "refreshing", is that he no longer has the responsibility of captaincy. As mild mannered as he is off the pitch, however, he remains "quite vociferous" on it. Since Villa are not strong on verbals, with exceptions such as Andy Townsend, his leadership qualities were another factor which swayed Little.

Paul McGrath, despite his fabled gregariousness, is apparently neither a shouter nor an organiser; simply a class act with creaking knees. "When we played Wimbledon he didn't train with us all week. Didn't kick a ball, just worked on his weights and his bike. But his performance was unbelievable. I won't play with many like him."

Little envisages a time when Southgate uses his McGrath-like radar for anticipating danger as the middle man at the back. Nor does he rule out the possibility of a return to midfield. His assessment - and this is a phlegmatic man - reads like a memo to Terry Venables.

"Gareth's a terrific pro: versatile, reliable, mature. He sets very high standards and I say to the young lads: 'Watch him work, watch him train'. There's an honesty and passion about the way he plays, but he also has excellent technical ability."

Which prompts the thought (whisper it to Mr Noades) that he left Selhurst too cheaply. Funnily enough, after the talk linking Ferdinand, Collymore and Gascoigne to Villa, many in the Midlands saw his arrival as proof that Little and Ellis could not cut it in the market.

"I'm not the sort of personality or player who's going to spark a rush on season tickets," Southgate admits. "But I am consistent. Managers know what they're getting, which is why Brian Little bought me."