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PRIDE & JOY: Gareth Southgate interview
When trying to unite a group of club players in giving their all on an international stage, it takes an innovative and empathetic leader like England manager and League Managers Association (LMA) president Gareth Southgate to really make it work.
Before the England squad set off on their World Cup adventure in Russia, Southgate explained his inclusive “one team” coaching philosophy to the LMA and our sister publication Elite Soccer.
Gareth Southgate can remember the day he got his first call-up for England at the age of 25. He was confident in his own abilities – after seven years with Crystal Palace, he was playing at Aston Villa alongside international players like Paul McGrath, Andy Townsend, Dwight Yorke and Steve Staunton – but given that his England team mates were effectively strangers, it was still an intimidating experience.
Taken swiftly under the wing of England stalwart Stuart Pearce, however, the newcomer learned the ropes quickly and began to feel comfortable in his England shirt. There was, though, little discussion or process in place to help him understand just what it meant to wear it.
Fast forward 22 years and Southgate, having been manager of the England senior squad since October 2016, is finding novel ways to help his lions connect with the heritage woven into the England badge. “When a player joins the squad, rather than us just handing him his first shirt, we ask former England players, such as Ian Wright, Frank Lampard and Terry Butcher, to make the presentation, and in the process to share their memories of when they got their first cap and what playing for the national side meant to them,” Southgate explains. “It also serves as a reminder to the current squad that they are merely custodians of that shirt and that many others have gone before them and many more will follow in the future. It’s about emphasising that we have to make the most of the opportunity we have as a team and treat the shirt with respect.”
“We have a squad of such diverse talents and I want everyone to feel free to express themselves for England in the same way that they do for their club sides”
KISSING THE BADGE
Neither pride nor respect for your national identity, though, are qualities that can be shared out or demanded by a leader, he points out. “They are very personal emotions, and you can’t force them on anyone. Our current squad did want to sing the national anthem and it was very much a decision that they made for themselves. We have a squad of such diverse talents and I want everyone to feel free to express themselves for England in the same way that they do for their clubs.”
Enabling that requires Southgate to get to know each and every member of the squad, via regular one-to-one conversations, to find out how they tick, what’s going on in their lives and what’s important to them. “Those meetings are so rewarding,” he says, “because as you find out more about a person, you learn how to get the best from them. What might be influencing or affecting their performances? What are their personal motivators and how do they view things?”
Importantly, he adds, this approach extends to every player, whether they’re a star striker or someone who is injured and unlikely to be taking to the bench any time soon.
Southgate has also developed a system of initiating new players, with the national football centre at its heart, to ensure they settle in as quickly as possible and become part of a close-knit team from the get-go. “When a young player of 15 or 16 comes into the England system, they receive an induction pack and we invite them and their parents to St. George’s Park to learn about what’s expected from them as an England player. We want them to feel at home here because the more comfortable they are, the more they will relax, and the better they’ll train and play.”
Older players joining the squad for the first time or those who, like Ashley Young this season, haven’t been with England for a number of years, also go through an initiation process. Southgate will sit down with each player to talk through some of the things the team has been working on, his philosophy and how he likes to work, but the other members of the squad also have a valuable and growing role.
“We have a leadership group among the players who, in future, we hope will play an even bigger part in making new players feel welcome,” he says. “Since I’ve been at St. George’s Park, I’ve seen the senior players create a very welcoming environment. You’ll always find some sort of hierarchy in teams, but our players have used their personal skills and relaxed approach to ensure that new team members, and in particular younger players, don’t feel intimidated when they arrive.”
CENTRE OF ATTENTION
The experience that newcomers have when they first arrive at St. George’s Park is altogether different today than in Southgate’s days as a lion, as there was no national football centre, no Clairefontaine as there was in France or Coverciano as in Italy. Instead, the senior team would stay at Burnham Beeches hotel and train at Bisham Abbey.
“Howard Wilkinson had a very clear plan of how he thought the national football centre should evolve and his concept was absolutely right,” says Southgate. “It is fundamental to the successful development of English football. As soon as the players arrive here we want them to feel part of England, and the same applies to coaches coming here to extend their learning. There has to be an emotional hit when you come to St. George’s Park to join your team mates or colleagues, because that’s the essence of representing your country, that pride and honour.”
Southgate is keen to build on the symbolism of St. George’s Park by making it feel even more inclusive and aspirational for players coming up through the system.
“It would be great, for example, to have more exposure of the achievements of all the England age groups and teams in the public areas of the hotel and the football centre,” he says. “Now that we’ve won at development level and the England Women’s team has made fantastic progress in major tournaments we need to make sure we really show that off so we can raise the expectations of other players. It’s important that all young players feel inspired and that they have a belief in what can be achieved. The environment at St. George’s Park should be an important part of that.”
“I’ve been through pretty much everything you can go through in football, including that missed penalty at Euro 96… so I can empathise with how my players are feeling”
The unity that St. George’s Park enables is something else that was lacking in Southgate’s days as an England player, when the senior first team rarely crossed paths with the other age groups unless they happened to be travelling on the same plane.
In contrast, Southgate’s squad will often be at camp at St. George’s Park at the same time as the U21s, U19s and U17s, and the layout of the facility enables a connectivity and continuity between the different age groups and between players and coaches. Now that the teams also have exclusive use of the on-site hotel during international weeks, players of all ages have the freedom to interact with one another on a more social level, creating a club feel that’s tough to create in national squad set ups.
That club feel is strengthened further by Southgate’s one-team mentality on the whole England set up, with little separation, for example, between the players and other staff at social events.
“Everybody just sits wherever they want, so there’s interaction between different groups and it creates a really interesting dynamic,” he says, adding that he saw just how valuable this approach could be during a team building trip to the Marines last year. When you’re going to be away together for long periods of time, whether at sea or for an international competition, everyone needs to feel comfortable in one another’s company.
“The coaching staff and all of the support staff across the departments play such an important role and are integral to the culture we are trying to build. They all support and challenge the players and use their expertise to help them, but it should never be a teacher/pupil dynamic,” says Southgate. “We’re one team, all working together towards a common aim. We’re aligned in how we are thinking and how we are working.”
UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
The unique challenges of international management can throw club managers some curveballs, but for Southgate at least there were few surprises. Having led the England U21s for three years, qualifying for the U21 European Championships in 2015 and winning the Toulon Tournament in 2016 for the first time in 22 years, the top job presented the same challenges, just on a much bigger scale.
“In terms of bridging my learning as a manager, the U21s was great preparation,” he says, “because while this is arguably one of the most high-profile jobs in the country, it wasn’t new territory. In contrast, when I was appointed as manager of Middlesbrough in the Premier League, everything was brand new; I was a player one day and a manager the next.”
Southgate’s time as an England player also means he is more than familiar with what it feels like to play at international tournaments, to take part in media conferences and deal with all the other responsibilities and emotions that come with donning the England shirt.
“I’ve been through pretty much everything you can go through in football, including that missed penalty at Euro 96,” he says. “I’ve been under the spotlight, have been to a tournament where I’ve played every minute, but equally one where I didn’t play at all, so I can empathise with how my players are feeling.
“I’m also conscious to not put any more pressure on them than is necessary because the pressure they face as we go into the World Cup is going to be intense. I don’t need to add to that burden.”
Having qualified unbeaten for the 2018 World Cup and held their own admirably in friendlies against Germany and Brazil, the England team can take confidence in what Southgate describes as a thorough ‘stress test’.
“You have to view every match, including friendlies, as great opportunities to improve, to test yourself as a team and to prepare for what’s yet to come,” he says. “They’re right in rugby to call fixtures of this kind ‘test matches’, because that’s how we should view them.”
Partly, it’s about taking away the element of the unknown, he adds, about banking the knowledge that they have now played against the top two teams in the world back to back and drawing confidence from that.
“Where else are you going to play at that level twice in quick succession? We’ve now been through that stress test as a team, we’ve found four or five players to give us more options in selection and we have some young players who we have real belief in,” says Southgate. “Overall, we can take great pride in what we’ve achieved so far and every time we unite here at St. George’s Park we’ll be working hard to build on that.”