Gareth Southgate says he is relaxed about being England manager now but, as he prepares for Thursday’s friendly against Wales and the Nations League fixtures against Belgium and Denmark that follow, admits he was worried at first about what the position might do to him.
Southgate has just completed four years as England manager, first taking over as interim cover after Sam Allardyce’s abrupt departure then making a solid case for himself as a permanent solution when reaching a World Cup semi-final two years ago, and he says he should have “kept my mouth shut” instead of being critical of his predecessors Kevin Keegan and Sven-Göran Eriksson.
“I saw what happened to Kevin Keegan first-hand,” he said this week. “When he came in he was full of enthusiasm, a really great man-manager who made you feel good about yourself, but then when it came to that last game against Germany I think he’d reached the point where he’d stopped enjoying the job. I saw that the responsibility of being England manager had really drained him and that was one of the reasons I was uncertain about taking in on at first.”
When England lost to Germany in 2000, almost symbolically in the final game at the old Wembley, Keegan confessed that tactically he had “come up a bit short”. Southgate was playing that day, in midfield, which was a handy stick for anyone to use to beat a manager who had just admitted his limitations.
“I remember it well,” Southgate said. “Paul Ince and Dennis Wise hadn’t been playing particularly well and it wasn’t as if I had never played in midfield before. As a matter of fact I had played there for England under Terry Venables, yet when Terry did it he was hailed as a genius, whereas when Kevin did it everyone said he was a fool. That’s the England job for you. It’s very hard to please everyone.”
Southgate was mildly critical of Keegan and his full-time successor, Eriksson, in an autobiography, something that now makes him feel uncomfortable. “When you start to coach and manage you realise you don’t know everything and perhaps you shouldn’t write autobiographies in that way,” he said. “I look back with regret now I know how difficult the job is. I should have kept my mouth shut.”
Southgate was always associated with the comment, regarding Eriksson’s team talk before England lost to Brazil in 2002, that the team “needed Churchill but got Iain Duncan-Smith” and though he has consistently denied that remark came from him, he does accept that books written from a player’s point of view rarely see the whole picture.
“I can see now how hard Kevin’s job was, and Sven’s, and I can see that everyone manages differently according to their own strengths,” he said. “It’s always sad when a manager resigns, too, like Kevin did. As a player you have to wonder whether you could have done more.”
By now England should have played a European Championship and established whether they could build on the success of the last World Cup, but coronavirus put paid to all that. Southgate has instead had to put up with an unwanted 10-month interlude and is only now attempting to recover lost momentum.
“There’s no point complaining, everyone else is in the same boat,” he said. “I believe we have made progress since I have been involved. We have proved we can be tactically adaptable and I am still enjoying it, but the last England get-together was really complicated and challenging.”
He is not talking about the extracurricular activities in Iceland, but the difficulties of picking up where you left off after almost a year. In that space of time, for instance, Dele Alli, John Stones and Jesse Lingard have gone from World Cup semi-finalists to players on the periphery at their clubs, impossible to select for England because of a lack of first-team football.
“Those three are all finding it difficult at the moment,” Southgate said. “But they are all good players and they are all young. Hopefully they will be able to regain their form and their places.”