As Gareth Southgate stands on the brink of an achievement that could afford him a place in history, he is considering the past. The England manager is asked what he would say to his 25-year-old self. That was the young man that had just missed a penalty against Germany at Euro 96, and the message is simple, but searing.
“Those sorts of moments in your life don’t have to define you. You have to work your way through them and develop resilience.”
Southgate has more than that. One of the stories of this tournament has been his own personal redemption, to the point he has been recast as a leadership figure, and almost a spokesman for the nation. Through taking the knee and the effects of Brexit on football and football support, Southgate has had to address more subjects than most politicians.
That has marked him out as much more adept and considered a speaker than most politicians, ahead of what is one of the country’s most momentous days in modern history.
Such is the symbolism and emotion of an event like the final of an international tournament that they almost become referendums on national identity, and Southgate was here the one calling.
On the eve of the final, the 50-year-old went into a wide-ranging discussion on what it actually means to be English.
“I think there are historic things that we should be proud of,” Southgate began. “We’ve had unbelievable inventions in this country. We’ve had standards of decency, I suppose, that would be expected. I think if you travelled abroad and you asked somebody who had met an Englishman abroad – depending on what resort you went to I suppose – there are different aspects to it.
“But, at heart, I go back to the values that my parents gave me and treating people as you would want to be treated and just respectful really.
“But also people have tried to invade us and we’ve had the courage to hold that back. You can’t hide that some of the energy in the stadium against Germany was because of that.
“I never mentioned that to the players, but I know that’s part of what that story was. There is an intertwining of all those things, that generations of… respect for our elders and just values I think we should have.
“We have so many things here that we should be proud of that we probably underestimate that maybe if we were living in other countries we always see what’s good about them, but we are always looking at the negatives of our own country and yet we have got so much to be proud of and so much talent coming through in all industries really. The generations to come, they are the ones we’ve got to invest in because they can keep England being… for an island our size we’ve got an incredible influence on the world and we’ve got to keep that in a positive way.”
Everyone is now looking at English football in a more positive way. Southgate has been one of the central figures in a revolution that has reshaped both perceptions and performance. That involved similar standards that he would expect of the nation itself. That is where so much intertwines, as Southgate says.
“We have a view of what being English should represent and standards we want to hit. You still have to win football matches. If you don’t, those messages and things we stand for don’t have the same impact. But I think we still have to be consistent in what we think is important. If we set the right standards as a group of staff, our job is to help them be the best players they can be, but also if we can help them grow as people.
“We have exceptional examples of players setting a really good example for young kids who are watching them and will aspire to be them through this tournament. It’s important that their parents when they are talking to those kids can say, ‘we are quite happy for you to be a Raheem, a Marcus, a Kalvin Phillips’ or whoever they might be because they stand for the right things off the pitch as well as on it.”
Southgate also reflected on his own start in the job, and the perceptions of the Football Association just giving it to “a yes man”.
“Because I knew that, when we have had difficult tournaments as a country, the FA come under scrutiny, so there is not going to be any enthusiasm for an FA man getting the job and I know people saw me as an FA man.
“I don’t mind that, by the way, because I think what the FA actually stand for - from grassroots football to people like Peter Sturgess [National Development Coach for 5-11 age group] who takes our six to 11 programme to Nick Levett [former Talent ID Manager], who travelled around the country putting the smaller formats of the game out there - then if that’s what being an FA man is, then I’m happy to be accused of it, if you like.
“But sitting here, that’s what is really fulfilling. All of those things have been implemented at every age group and many people have been involved.
“It does take time. It took time for me to be brave enough to implement some of those things. At the start, you are dipping your toe in. You think how far can we go? You have to keep winning matches.
“We obviously had some players coming to the end of their International careers. We knew this younger group was coming through but how quickly can you make those changes?
“I couldn’t say ‘yes, this was always the clear vision’ but the longer I have been in the role, the more I’ve understood the importance to our fans of that connection with the team.
“What hit me coming back from Russia was families coming up to me on the street, people coming up to me on the street from all backgrounds of our country and saying they felt they could go to a game now and not be abused at the stadium, connect with the team. They felt part of it.
“And that inclusivity is really important for us because I think that is what modern England is. We know it hasn’t always been the case and there are historic reasons for that. But that level of tolerance and inclusion is what we have to be about moving forward.”
A final step awaits.
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