It’s been a whirlwind five years for Gareth Southgate as permanent England manager. When he was given the job initially on a temporary basis, it was quite simply because nobody else dared touch it with a bargepole. We’d watched the Steve McClaren horror show, we’d had our hopes briefly raised and then subsequently dashed by the authoritarian Fabio Capello and then watched as Roy Hodgson led the Three Lions to their most embarrassing defeat in a major tournament at Euro 2016.
Things had become so bad within the England set-up that Sam Allardyce was given the permanent job only to see his international career come to a premature end over a comedic pint of wine. It is hard to imagine a tougher starting point for a young manager who was under scrutiny from the start, given his only past managerial experience had been at Middlesbrough and with the U21 side.
But arguably, England couldn’t sink any lower - and they absolutely had nothing to lose. The FA put their trust in Southgate and boy has he delivered. In his five years at the helm, the squad has obviously improved under his leadership, but his biggest achievement has been transforming the way players and public alike think about the national team.
We have all heard the stories of the Golden Generation sticking to their cliques and the general apathy around the Three Lions side for the majority of the 2010s was obvious as failure was expected, but slowly but surely, Southgate has managed to turn this entire ship around.
It is worth noting that former Chairman of the FA Greg Dyke was laughed at back in 2013 when he stated: “The two targets I have for the England team are – one, to at least reach the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and two, win the World Cup in 2022.”
That promise seemed so utterly ludicrous at the time, and even more so when he left his office in 2016, that the critics (of which there were many) were left flabbergasted that he would be outlandish enough to make such a claim. But, just a year after St George’s Park had opened, he also stated that “English football is a tanker that needs turning.”
Who would have thought the man to do exactly that was the same guy who wore a paper bag on his head in a Pizza Hut advert? The results on the pitch have been simply exceptional - England were a penalty shootout away from becoming European Champions this summer and can head to the World Cup next year with genuine hopes of going all the way - but Southgate’s legacy will hopefully last longer than his contract, which now expires in 2024.
He has changed the way journalists write about the England team. For years the players and their WAGs were pilloried from pillar to post, their every move was scrutinised and it seemed as if the country was never more than a moment away from a footballing disaster.
Now, as we saw in 2018 and this summer, Southgate has transformed the England set-up, right from the very top. There is a new-found emphasis on youth, that he has plugged from day one and these youngsters are not burdened with the same weight of history that their predecessors suffered.
Players are more open with the media, the squad play darts with the press and joke about with inflatable unicorns in the pool and somehow, from the ashes of despair, Southgate has made this squad utterly lovable. Raheem Sterling has stood up and turned the tide of racial tabloid abuse, Marcus Rashford is campaigning for good politically and Declan Rice and Mason Mount share a friendship that is enough to warm the hearts of even the most vocal anglophobe.
And they are led by a man who always says the right things, even when faced with testing situations. He has backed his players when needed but also spoken out against racial injustice. When the taking of a knee was being booed, he played a massive role in changing public opinion and now, up and down the country, the gesture is widely supported by applause. He has also encouraged young people to get vaccinated and called out the racist abuse England players have suffered both at home and abroad.
“I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold,” he wrote in the Players’ Tribune. “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.”
As Gary Neville touched on at Euro 2020, this country has severely lacked leaders to be proud of recently. But Southgate is one of them. He has worked tirelessly to turn around the hopes and expectations of this England side and even though his famous waistcoat may be a thing of the past, the responsibility he now carries on his shoulders is at an all-time high.
We should be so proud to have Gareth Southgate in charge of our national team. Over the course of two tournaments, matches against Colombia, Germany and Denmark have already produced memories that will last a lifetime. The World Cup is just twelve months away and after 66 years of hurt, Atomic Kitten should get those vocals warmed up again. Southgate, you're the one.