Mild-mannered and unfailingly polite, Gareth Southgate was not an obvious candidate to brave the slings and arrows of the England manager’s job, but his good-natured geniality disguises a steely determination.
Prior to stepping into the breach after Sam Allardyce’s downfall, Southgate was best known for squandering the decisive penalty in England’s agonising semi-final loss to Germany at Euro 96.
It was one of several cruel setbacks to have befallen the 46-year-old, but now, 20 years on, his intelligence and durability have landed him the most prestigious job in English sport.
“The path I’ve been on in my life is that there have been really difficult moments and I’ve learnt what’s been needed to get success,” Southgate said prior to the confirmation of his appointment.
“And that frees me up to be able to deal with whatever happens. That gives me freedom in how I do things, to give the the players the supportive environment to say: ‘Come on, be as good as you might be.’
“If we don’t really reach high then we might never reach the levels that may have been attainable.”
Born in Watford in September 1970 and raised in Crawley, south of London, Southgate got his first exposure to football’s capacity for cruelty when he was released by Southampton aged 14.
The rejection letter, informing him he was too small, was “impersonal” and “poorly written”, as he recalled in Liverpool youth coach Mike Yates’s book, ‘Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Me’, published in 2013.
Southgate resolved to keep the letter and has used it as motivation ever since.
He was picked up by Crystal Palace, making his first-team debut aged 21 and captaining the club to the 1993-94 second-tier title before joining Aston Villa in 1995.
A central midfielder turned centre-back, the slender Southgate was an elegant player with an excellent vision of the game.
He made his England debut under Terry Venables in December 1995 and played every minute of the hosts’ European Championship campaign the following summer.
Fortune, however, would desert him in the semi-final shootout when his meek spot-kick was parried by Andreas Kopke, allowing Andreas Moller to send eventual champions Germany into the final.
– ‘Cool and calm’ –
Southgate won the League Cup and reached an FA Cup final with Villa before joining Middlesbrough, where he won another League Cup and played in the 2004 UEFA Cup final.
A natural organiser, he captained all three of the clubs he played for.
He became Boro manager upon his retirement as a player in 2006, receiving special dispensation from the Premier League as he did not have the correct coaching qualifications.
Boro were relegated to the Championship in 2009 and despite making a strong start to their second-tier campaign, he was sacked that October.
If Southgate had been allowed to sidestep the usual requirements for first-time managers at Boro, with his next steps he embedded himself firmly in the country’s national coaching framework.
He spent 18 months as the Football Association’s head of elite development and became head coach of England’s Under-21s in August 2013.
Southgate fell short in his first major assignment as England crashed out of the 2015 Under-21 European Championship in the group phase.
But when Allardyce was brought down by a newspaper sting, just two months after succeeding Roy Hodgson as England manager, the FA knew exactly where to find a safe pair of hands.
Southgate’s four-game interim stint yielded mixed results, but his commitment to possession football shone through and his side came within seconds of an impressive win over Spain on their last outing.
“He’s really, really cool and calm. It’s no act,” says goalkeeper Joe Hart. “That’s transferred to the players and we feel comfortable.”
Since stepping in for Allardyce, Southgate has patiently batted away speculation about his future and taken a succession of interlocutors to task about his supposed timorousness.
The onerous responsiblity of ending England’s 50-year wait for glory is now his.
© 2016 AFP