TTo paraphrase Gareth Southgate, people only remember the bloody relegation. He arrived at Middlesbrough in 2009 – after two seasons of respectability in the Premier League mid-table – in what remains his first and only position in club management. There is an itch to come back to the division, “an obvious challenge”, as the England manager puts it.
“Because people see the management of my club only through the eyes of relegation, there is a part of you that wants to prove them wrong,” Southgate said. “There will be a day when I do that, I’m sure. “
That day won’t come until at least the 2024-25 season, if things go as planned and Southgate can last the duration of the new contract he signed with the Football Association on Monday, which has given him another chance to win tournament glory – Euro 2024 is now in its thinking after next winter’s World Cup.
Southgate’s presence for the European Championship finals in Germany could depend on his performance in Qatar, but don’t bet on that as the faith the FA has in him runs deep. It echoed in every syllable of the words of managing director Mark Bullingham, who sat alongside Southgate at a press conference to announce the contract extension.
And for good reason. Bullingham pointed out that England had won six knockout games in major finals in the 50 years following the 1966 World Cup triumph and, in the following period under Southgate, in the World Cup. world 2018 and Euro 2020, there were five victories.
With a semi-final and a final, Southgate’s record is broken only by Sir Alf Ramsey and, having been initially appointed on an interim basis in September 2016, he would reach eight years in the post if he reached Euro 2024 – level with Sir Bobby Robson and behind only Sir Walter Winterbottom and Ramsey. A one-time keeper who ultimately failed made headlines this week, but the Southgate star remains in the ascendancy.
There is often the temptation to watch Southgate and plan his return to the Premier League. If he re-signed with England, wouldn’t he miss the best positions at the club? Rather, it minimizes the volatility of that environment – an environment in which vacancies arise on a regular basis – but it also misses the point. Southgate is on a rare thing with England and he knows it. The talent pool is vast, with even more well-regarded youngsters on the track, and there is room for improvement. England no longer travels in hope.
“The hope of winning is higher than we thought the team could be three years ago and that puts us in a great position to move forward,” Southgate said.
To put it bluntly, club football can wait. “People are always looking at what’s next in their life and what’s next in their careers and may not be living a fulfilling life in the role they’re in or the relationship they’re in. In football, when you’ve got a team that’s a good team, when you’ve done a lot of cultural work and you’ve got them to a point where they can challenge, then you want that to come to fruition.
“Walking away at a time when we still think the next few years can be very exciting… that would have been difficult to live with. And if this contract is the last, I would still only be 53 at the end. I hope I still have a good part of my life to live beyond that.
“I always question people in our industry who have a career plan on where they want to be in five years because every job I got after I was done playing, I never knew. not that I was going to be going there about two weeks before. When I became manager of Middlesbrough I was on the beach thinking I would have another year to play. The [England] the role of the under-21s appeared in a very short time and that of the seniors appeared in the space of two nights. Why not enjoy the ride? “
Southgate’s work to transform the culture around the England setup has been extraordinary, especially in terms of creating a positive bond between the team and the fans; make players want to declare themselves and express themselves. He describes it as “incredibly fulfilling” and it’s easy to see it as addicting.
“There were times when maybe the dream when you were with England was just to survive,” Southgate said. “There were times when I would play where we were going and you were worried about going to the fans outside because you weren’t sure what reaction you would get; you were afraid to pick up the newspaper the next day.
“We had three players who debuted this month [Emile Smith Rowe, Aaron Ramsdale and Conor Gallagher] and they appreciated. They played with the freedom you see them playing in their clubs, so it’s a different environment.
Southgate is pretty clear on what the dream should be. It’s winning a major trophy. He has been marked by near misses – defeats to Croatia and Italy in the World Cup and Euro respectively, which he says he has learned lessons from. He is urged to take the decisive step.