It turns out the answer wasn’t Lampard and Gerrard. It wasn’t a diamond midfield, or Heskey and Owen. It wasn’t Sven Goran Eriksson or Sam Allardyce. It wasn’t sticking with a winning team come what may, nor was it squeezing all the best players into the starting XI no matter what. The answer to the age-old question of how to get England back to a major final was Gareth Southgate, Atomic Kitten and Neil Diamond.
The scenes at Wembley on Wednesday after the Euro 2020 semi-final win over Denmark were 55 years in the making. All the ups and downs which have followed led to this moment. Sure, there’s a final still to play, and on Sunday night there will be nervous anticipation on a whole new scale, but the enormity of such a constant psychological barrier being shattered must not be taken for granted. This was a special moment whatever happens against Italy.
And at the heart of it was Southgate. Once upon a time he was the guy who had failed on the big stage, the one from the Pizza Hut advert. He was then a respectable if unspectacular Premier League stalwart, the man who took Middlesbrough down in his first managerial role and later the overseer of a miserable England showing at the Euro Under-21 Championship.
But when he stepped into the role of England manager at short notice after Allardyce’s brush with infamy in a Manchester restaurant with a pint of wine, he seemed to fit the role immediately. And at every turn he appears to find new ways to prove he has exactly the right temperament, the right ideas and the perfect balance for the so-called ‘impossible job’.
England achieved continuity by coincidence when Southgate stepped up. They had gone for the best club manager in the land before when selecting the likes of Sir Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor, they had swashbucklers like Terry Venables and Kevin Keegan, then the foreign choices of Eriksson and Fabio Capello. The steady hand of Roy Hodgson had turned out not to be so steady, and when Allardyce’s indiscretion became public the FA had to hastily turn to Southgate.
What has followed is historic in the prism of the England men’s football team. The run to the 2018 World Cup turned out only to be an appetiser. In 2021, Southgate has delivered us a national team to be proud of on and off the pitch. The players fight for what they believe in away from the action and battle for the collective cause once the whistle blows.
He’s no crowd pleaser in the typically English sense, and it has paid massive dividends. England managers past would have played Jack Grealish from the start of almost every game this year due to the weight of public pressure. Some would have banged on about “playing your best players” the way former national team players still do to this day. But Southgate has made a hundred key decisions which could have backfired and made him look an ass.
When he changed the shape to good effect against Germany in the round of 16, he admitted afterwards: “You know that if you change the shape, and you pick certain players ahead of others, if it goes wrong you’re dead.”
On Wednesday he did it all over again, substituting substitute Grealish – a no-can-do in the eyes of died-in-the-wool English football fans – with the side leading 2-1 in extra-time. On came Kieran Trippier as Southgate changed the formation again and placed an emphasis on ball retention. What followed was one of the more comfortable periods closing out a game that any semi-finalist has ever had.
Difficult decisions are nothing new to Southgate though. He was the man who ended Wayne Rooney’s international career, handed a goalkeeper with just three caps to his name, Jordan Pickford, the gloves at a World Cup, and even in the last 12 months has dealt with delicate situations involving Phil Foden, Mason Greenwood and Harry Maguire admirably and with minimal fuss.
His ability to lead the group whatever the background noise has rightly gained praise, with Gary Neville on ITV talking of the hole Southgate has filled in a divided nation. “The standard of leaders in this country over the past couple of years has been poor, looking at that man, he’s everything a leader should be, respectful, humble, he tells the truth.”
There will be a part of the England fan base that will never be happy. They will always want their favourites to be in the line-up and will forever blame something or someone else when things don’t go to plan. But in Southgate this team has exactly the manager it needs. He’ll make the tough calls nobody quite expects, he’ll stand up for his players, and he’ll do it all with the calm persona of a true leader.
He’s one win away from becoming a legend, but he’s already a history-maker whatever happens next.