According to the old football manager cliche, “we do our talking on the pitch”. Sadly, that hasn’t been the way with the England team, but in his “Dear England” open letter to the nation, Gareth Southgate has proved that you can actually do some pretty effective and worthwhile talking off the pitch as well as in it.
It might come as a bit of surprise, given the power of another cliche about keeping politics out of sport (a fantasy at best), and the assumption that – third cliche coming up – you can’t have brains in your feet as well in your head, but Southgate has shown extraordinary bravery in speaking out on “taking the knee” in the inspiring way that he has.
As England manager, and as a player for many years, he knows well the stick you can get for failure (we’ll not go into any embarrassing detail about the 1996 Euros), and the merciless denigration of someone in his position almost inevitably is subjected to. (Frankly, nothing short of an England victory will satisfy elements of the fan base and the press). Yet in his open letter, he has shown leadership and moral courage, which is sadly lacking in the likes of Boris Johnson. Where Johnson seeks to provoke and exploit division, Southgate seeks unity and understanding. It’s easy to wonder at times whether Southgate might make a better prime minister than Johnson.
It’s beautifully written (and as good as any article that has ever emanated from the Johnson keyboard. It elegantly combines a sense of his position with a feeling of humility and homeliness: “I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.”
Modesty is always an endearing virtue, and, provided there are no slip-ups against Croatia (or Scotland) England might even fall in love with Southgate, even his unusual sartorial taste.
He is also clear, which makes a refreshing change to hear from a public figure, and asks the straight central question as if standing in front of a fan in the stands, and a question to which there is no good answer. “Why would you tag someone in on a conversation that is abusive?” he asks. “Why would you choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin? Why?”
Why, indeed, would you choose to refer to “picaninnies” or compare the dress of some Muslim women to letterboxes or bank robbers? Why?
It’s tempered, though, with an understanding that “on this island we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but it shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.
Quietly spoken and understated, Southgate is all the more powerful and convincing for it, and vastly more engaging than some Corbynesque rant or political platitudes: “You are on the losing side. It is clear to me that we are moving towards a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.
“It might not feel like it at times, but it’s true. The awareness around inequality and the discussions on race have gone to a different level in the last 12 months alone.
“I am confident that young kids of today will grow up baffled by old attitudes and ways of thinking.”
Southgate gets himself, his team and the values they collectively represent on the right side of history, and he invokes a real sense that they will prevail in the battles, on and off the pitch, to come. He says: “I have never believed that we should just stick to football”. Quite right. Who knows where Southgate may lead us?
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