Another tournament, another penalty shootout…another defeat. But in one respect, at least, this felt different.
‘I chose the guys to take the kicks. It is my decision to give him [Saka] that penalty,’ he says. ‘That is totally my responsibility. It is not him or Marcus or Jadon. Of course it’s going to be heartbreaking for the boys, but they are not to blame for that.’
There’s a saying that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. Southgate has the rare awareness and humility to subtract himself from the first column and add himself to the second, and if it took a while for people to see these — and other — qualities in him, that perhaps says more about them than him.
Southgate has the rare awareness and humility to subtract himself from the first column and add himself to the second, and if it took a while for people to see these — and other — qualities in him, that perhaps says more about them than him
But still: when he was first appointed England manager in 2016 there wasn’t, to say the least, a great deal of excitement.
For a start, he was only the caretaker, given four matches on probation before being confirmed in the post a year later.
He was widely seen as a company man, an FA insider who’d only got the job because of his position as England’s Under-21 manager and the fact that there was no one else around to help mop up the fallout from predecessor Sam Allardyce’s hasty departure.
He had managed just one club, Middlesbrough, and that without distinction: two mid-table finishes and relegation before being sacked.
For a country which liked big-beast managers to go with its perceived status, Gareth Southgate appeared a step backwards, maybe even two or three: a nice enough bloke, sure, articulate and earnest, but as far from a footballing messiah as could be imagined.
Gareth Southgate consoles Jodan Sancho after England lost to Italy in penalties at the Euro 2020 final
England Manager Terry Venables and Don Howe console Gareth Southgate after his penalty miss in 1996
The popular images of him were as victim or failure: being stamped on by Roy Keane while playing for Crystal Palace against Manchester United, missing that penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany. Some would have even offered hints of Alan Partridge and David Brent, those particularly English TV creations who only intermittently and dimly glimpse the narrow boundaries of their own limitations.
So if, at the time of that appointment, you’d wagered that Southgate would reach the semi-final of his first major tournament, the final of his second and offer himself up as the man responsible for falling just short of a trophy, you’d have found long odds and plenty of people willing to take your cash.
You would, of course, now be richer and vindicated, but not so vindicated as him.
Iain Duncan Smith warned never to underestimate the determination of a quiet man, and if that felt misplaced in the politician’s case, it hasn’t with Southgate.
A wise man, quiet or otherwise, not only learns from his mistakes: he learns from those of others, too.
Southgate saw the way a predecessor, Sven-Goran Eriksson, had indulged his star players to the detriment of the team, so dropped Wayne Rooney in his second game in charge of the team to show no one was untouchable.
Gareth Southgate hugs his wife Alison during the 2018 FIFA World Cup
He saw the way another of those predecessors, Fabio Capello, had treated the players like errant schoolboys, and went out of his way to deal with them as adults.
Being national manager is, in many ways, harder than being a club manager. You have the players only for short bursts and often reluctantly released by their clubs, and the endless cycle of high-profile, high-pressure Premier League and Champions League matches means international duty can feel an afterthought, a chore.
Changing this would be key to changing the view of his England team, and the results. The first thing that went was the blood-and-thunder, up-and-at-’em, John Bull attitude that had defined England for so long.
Southgate talked to the players about what the country meant to them, he wrote essays on being English, and took the responsibility of representing the nation seriously. He kept faith with those who’d played well for him but were patchy at club level, like Jordan Pickford and Raheem Sterling.
He understood the basics of team-building.
The teams who win are those whose players trust each other and that comes only from shared values and personal qualities. It’s not enough to be a man of skill: you have to be one of substance, too.
When you have a manager who recognises those qualities, hones them into the best versions of themselves and a greater collective, you have what we saw on the pitch.
In the semi-final against Denmark, when England fell behind for the first time in the Euros, the players’ reactions were in Southgate’s mould: no slumped heads or exhortations to fight back, but reassurances these things happen, to stay positive and trust in the process. Soon they were level.
That emotional intelligence should come as no surprise to those who’ve watched Southgate closely. Before the 2018 World Cup, he encouraged left-back Danny Rose to go public about his depression. He also consoled Colombian player Mateus Uribe whose missed penalty saw England reach the quarter-finals.
And in Euro 2020 we have seen him praise the contribution of those squad members not chosen for the big matches.
It is easy to mistake emotional intelligence for weakness, and in Southgate’s case it would be a huge mistake. In his playing days he often lined up alongside alpha males such as Tony Adams and Stuart Pearce, and he was quiet and reserved in comparison. But he could put his foot in when needed.
Keane, commenting on the photo of him stamping on Southgate, has said: ‘Rewind a few minutes, and Gareth had tried to cut me absolutely in half.’ (Keane, who suffers neither fools nor weakness, calls Southgate ‘a really top man’.)
Southgate showed this ruthlessness in this tournament, too. Twice he subbed off players he’d brought on as substitutes. This can be embarrassing for them, but both men accepted the team came first, and Southgate was at pains to reassure them it was not personal. That combination of decency and hardness is the essence of integrity.
Five years ago, many thought Southgate represented one kind of Englishness, a rather hapless and ordinary one. It’s now clear he represents another kind, a better kind: inclusive, considerate, uplifting.
An opinion poll before the final found he was more popular than Churchill, and he is being talked up for roles outside football — in politics, finance, diplomacy — once he decides to leave the England job.
He may have taken us further than we dared hope, but not further than his efforts merit. Next year he will probably lead England in the World Cup, when they will be more hardened, together and determined.
For him, them, and us, there may yet be one more summit to crest.
Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His book, The Law Of The Heart, is out now.