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08 Dec 2021
Ahead of the greatest game this nation has seen for more than a generation, we need to revisit the last time we found ourselves in this situation – 4 July 1990 and the semi-final of the greatest tournament in the world.
Living in Liverpool as a trainee teacher at the time, 1990 was a watershed year. Not only did it herald a brand new decade, but it arrived full of hope and expectation. The people of Liverpool were still coming to terms with Hillsborough and the ravages of 1980s Thatcherism. Reagan had now gone and his mate Gorbachev was well on the way to receiving his Nobel Peace Prize of that year. The cold war started to feel just that little bit warmer, the Berlin Wall was nothing but rubble and England were marching on in the World Cup finals.
As a newly qualified teacher about to put the world in motion, New Order dominated the airwaves for a fortnight leading up to that fateful night in Turin. Half an hour down the East Lancs Road, that upstart city was smashing the music scene, not least with the birth of the Happy Mondays’ Madchester movement. The Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets all got in on the act that year but for me, none more so than James, with their much looked-over anthem, Come Home. Oh, how we wished football would do so that night.
It didn’t of course. Several weeks later I found myself still taking it out on the Banda machine in the staffroom as an NQT. Little did I know that it would be another 28 years before England get to do it all over again. So here I am hammering away at the keyboard, wondering where on earth the time went.
Euro 96 offered temporary relief. I was fortunate enough to get a suite of tickets, including group games at Anfield and Old Trafford, a semi-final (not England) and the final. I cannot tell you how excited I was to be seeing Gazza, Sheringham, and Shearer at Wembley. What a team! It was two days after my birthday. I was due to get married later that year and we’d just bought our first house. I was high on life. Even the hapless Stuart Pearce redeemed himself that night.
And then up stepped Gareth Southgate.
You can imagine from that moment on I was never going to be his greatest fan. In fact, I hated the man with a passion, refusing ever again to step into a Pizza Hut. In that one stupid kick, he ballooned sky-high my hopes and dreams to see England in a final at the home of football.
Instead, I had to endure the lucky Germans once again ride their luck. We winced as they robbed us once more, this time having the cheek to steal it from our own backyard on the back of a Golden Goal. Heck, they didn’t even know they’d won the thing at the time and in so doing denied us the fun of penalties, ever the party poopers.
The passing of time has been kind. I’d by and large forgotten all about Gareth Southgate until he popped up as the FA’s head of elite development 15 years later. I do remember thinking, oh well, that’s another generation of young talent wasted.
But I was wrong. And now, after almost three decades, I want to put it right.
Gareth Southgate is a leader blessed with talent. He may not be up there with the most enigmatic and ebullient of managers – he’s no Venables or Robson, or Shankly or Klopp. But he’s certainly one of the most authentic and effective. Here’s why:
The man oozes class, not just in the understated way he goes about his business, but in the way he engages with people. There is a genuine warmth in his eyes and as gatekeeper, he is always willing to let (the right) people in. He epitomises what it means to be a host leader.
He looks the part as well, suave and in control. He understands the importance of branding. The FA may well have given him the blazer, but he has the confidence to ditch it and be seen only in his now legendary waistcoat. For those of us who were taught at headship school never to be seen without your jacket, this makes for welcome relief (especially in this heat).
It may be a philosophical cliché, but as maxims go, ‘know thyself’ resonates throughout the camp. This team of players know themselves exceptionally well. They are the first to concede that individually they are not world-beaters. Be truthful, how many of you had to Google the likes of Pickford, Trippier, and Maguire when we played Tunisia? Hardly any of them would have made it into the starting line-ups of the seeded teams.
I read last week that the Swedish press actually like us as a footballing nation now because the arrogance and swagger shown by previous A-list players has gone. This new-found attitude starts and ends with Southgate. He knows the limitations of his team and creates a system to accommodate this.
He is honest about himself as well. When questioned about his penalty miss, Southgate’s answer was as refreshing as it was insightful: “I wasn’t technically good enough to perform that particular skill under pressure.” He didn’t lay the blame elsewhere, just parked it, dusted himself down and went again. And now, here he is, ex-manager of Middlesbrough, about to grab the greatest prize of all.
Southgate knows that any successful organisation needs a strong spine right down the middle. Everyone instinctively knows who these people are. They are the ones you go to, the ones that always put in a shift above and beyond, no matter what. They step up, especially when the chips are down. The spine is what connects the brain to the heart, hands, and feet.
The key to high performance is to do your job consistently well, day-in, day-out. It’s no good to anyone stepping up only when you fancy it. The same applies in sport, especially across the course of a long season, be it football, formula one or tennis. All elite performers know this, teachers especially. Southgate’s spine of Pickford – Stones – Henderson – Kane means that the team finally has a permanent backbone that not only props up the team but acts as the central nervous system for the team’s performance, health, and wellbeing.
Successful leaders have a strong sense of objective, strategy, tactics and Gareth Southgate is no exception. As manager, he knows that the single objective to win the world cup needs to drive all that they do as a team. Even at the start of the competition when no one thought they had a hope, I’m convinced he told his players that this was their objective, their destination. He must have told them it enough times because you can now begin to see that they finally believe it.
With the objective and associated strategy in place and understood by all, the manager has stuck to it, regardless. He hasn’t tinkered with the system and has stayed true to his beliefs. The players all know what is required of them and why. For the first time ever, we don’t have square pegs and round holes. Decide on your strategy first, communicate it with everyone, and then build your tactics around it.
When the strategy starts to waver, stick by it and instead change your tactics so that you get the job done. And if need be, write the tactics down on a water bottle and pass it to your keeper during a penalty shootout. It’s called preparedness and it works wonders.
What is remarkable about this set of players is that many of them have been playing together for years, in most cases under the watchful eye of Southgate. Although the team may appear youthful and inexperienced, as a unit overall they have come through the ranks together. Seven of the current squad all played for Southgate at under-21s, Kane, Dier, and Lingard included. There are massive lessons to be learnt here about the importance of nurture, succession and the role effective talent management can play, particularly when developing youth.
The role of the leader is crucial in making it clear to his team that he’s not a quitter. He is in it for the long term. This England squad was always meant to be a work-in-progress, with one eye on the World Cup in four years’ time. The European Championships in 2020 were to be the real test. This was just a dress rehearsal.
The reason it’s now become the main stage is because there is buy-in at every level. The team enjoy what they do. Players know that if they mess up, they can go again. The crippling fear of failure has been removed. The prevailing culture is no longer about individual egos but the development of the team over time. It’s about continuous improvement at all levels where every marginal gain counts. You sense almost a siege mentality when the players cross the white line, something we’ve not seen before.
At long last, we seem to have a team of players that understand that they don’t own the jersey, just the body within. Above all, they sense that there is a legacy to be left behind; that they are the privileged chosen few to play for the England yet to be born. Finally, the Three Lions seem to mean something.