“Looking back on when we first met,” thousands of England fans sing in unison, “I cannot escape and I cannot forget. Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on. Football’s coming home again!”
In the list of unlikely icons of 2018, the appropriation of Atomic Kitten’s 2000 hit “Whole Again” as a major football chant sits just behind Gareth Southgate’s emergence as a national hero. Southgate, whose football legacy had, until the past month, been defined by Andreas Köpke saving his penalty at Wembley in Euro ’96, is a man redeemed. When Eric Dier stroked home the winning penalty for England against Colombia – their first shootout win at a World Cup – he appeared to have been exorcised.
The thing about Gareth Southgate is he’s a normal guy. He looks more likely to work in IT than be a professional athlete. He has bone structure in all the wrong places. Amongst his Euro ’96 contemporaries, he doesn’t have the fire of Tony Adams, the confidence of Alan Shearer, the politics of Sol Campbell, the panache of Gazza. When he missed that decisive penalty at Wembley in the shoot-out against Germany, he seemed to collapse in on himself, and as coach Terry Venables consoled him, it was hard to imagine that he would one day be the man to lead the England team to their first World Cup quarter-final since 2006.
Back in June 2010, following England’s disappointing showing at the World Cup in South Africa and their exit at the hands of a rampant Germany, I made a Facebook page called “Gareth Southgate for England Manager”. The profile picture showed Southgate in the iconic grey England Euro ’96 strip, either moments before or moments after he crushed the spirits of the nation by missing that penalty. Like many people, I wanted Fabio Capello, England’s mercenary Italian coach, out and for his replacement to be a man who typified the hangdog soul of the English game. I wrote at the time, with mild xenophobia: “Back to basics, England manager who actually speaks English… who can bring that along with his vast experience actually playing for the English national side to the table.”
For those formative years as an England fan, I had watched the team led out by a Swede, Sven-Göran Eriksson, a man whose football was inversely correlated with the excitement of his private life, and by Capello, who seemed to genuinely hate England, its fans and, above all, its media. Southgate was the opposite to them. He had quietly gone about the job of managing Middlesborough for three years (a long time by modern managerial standards) before, battling against the club’s limited resources, they were relegated from the Premier League in 2009. He didn’t put his trotters up after that, but worked as a very shrewd pundit for ITV until, in 2013, he joined the England set-up in charge of the Under-21 side. The rest, as they say, is history.
The appeal of Southgate was, in part, that he had gone to school in my hometown, Crawley. Indeed, in a moment of nominative determinism, anticipating his great ascent, the 1946 town planners christened one of Crawley’s 13 neighbourhoods Southgate. Born in Watford before migrating to the south side of the London orbital, he is a man who embodies middle management suburbia like no other. In the great British culture war between the cosmopolitans and the populists, he sits defiantly in the middle. He is decidedly untrendy, with his waistcoats and Christian name, but nor is he a pint-of-wine, salt-o-the-earth type like Big Sam Allardyce. Liberal millennials get a frisson of excitement from glamorising a normcore hero, while working class England fans see in him the soft-spoken ambivalence of a man who is only on the electoral roll so he can be selected for jury duty.
No one could’ve predicted Southgate’s rise to the top of the game or the nation’s hearts. When I began my campaign for his appointment in 2010, it was more out of frustration with Capello’s smirking indifference to the calamitous football a supposedly golden generation was playing than out of any great esteem for Southgate’s talents. But he has always represented something admirable about the English footballing psyche. He is a man defined more by failure than victory; haunted a triumph that feels almost beyond living memory. Standing pitchside at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, he had, at times, the bug-eyed look of a man who has lost his keys, grasping in the dark recesses of memory for a way to force that ball past Köpke, into the net, into glory, one last time.
More than any of the players or performances, more than the kit, the stadia, the soundbites, the icon of this World Cup will be Southgate. England is his team: it looks like him, plays like him, and, with the dogged determination of a man installing a patio in a heatwave, continues to march on in the tournament. The purpose of my Facebook page may have been fulfilled, but the purpose of Gareth Southgate has not.