Gareth Southgate is England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey and yet a rising tide of angry voices is screaming for him to be sacked, ostensibly because he lost a meaningless, end-of-season friendly against Hungary — rebranded as a Nations League match — that he was using to explore options for this winter’s World Cup. Really?
Some of those voices yell that getting to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia four years ago and reaching the final of Euro 2020, losing on penalties to Italy, represents under-achievement. Really?
If this were not so arrogant, presumptive, ignorant and lacking in awareness of the fact there is hardly a myriad of great triumphs the England football team have to their name since 1966, it would be side-splittingly funny.
Gareth Southgate was booed by England fans after the 4-0 Hungary hammering at Molineux
The same voices yell that Southgate is wasting the best crop of players England has had since 1966. I don’t think so. Does nobody remember that Sven Goran Eriksson had a midfield that boasted Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and David Beckham with Wayne Rooney and Ballon d’Or winner Michael Owen up front?
This is a good England team, bolstered by some brilliant young players, but the idea that it would be weighed down by silverware if only Southgate would take the shackles off is a joke. Southgate is cautious sometimes because he needs to be cautious to protect the ordinariness in the team.
Yes, there is ordinariness. England still do not have a playmaker, which costs the side at the elite level. And if you haven’t noticed, the defence is hardly watertight. It needs protection.
Ask yourself how many of the players at Southgate’s disposal have won the Champions League compared to the riches previous England managers have had.
Of course Southgate is not infallible. Every manager comes with some reservations. Every fan would do something differently.
Some of us think it’s a crime Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t in Southgate’s starting XI but Southgate has made a judgment that the vulnerability the Liverpool right back brings to the team outweighs his creative input. I don’t agree but Southgate’s results back him up.
Some England supporters turned on the country’s most successful manager in decades
There is a misconception that England would be transformed without Southgate
By any measure, Southgate is doing a brilliant job with England, better than Ron Greenwood, Sir Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, Eriksson, Fabio Capello and even Sam Allardyce, although Sam did have that 100 per cent record. That’s before we talk about how he has made playing for England fun again, how he has transformed the atmosphere in the camp. Throw any England manager since Ramsey into the mix and Southgate has done a better job.
And yet that isn’t how it feels now. In truth, that isn’t how it has felt for some time. Let’s be honest: the knives have been out for Southgate since before the European Championship. A significant strand of the England fanbase has wanted him to fail since then.
It was waiting for him to fail in those Euros but because England beat Germany in the last 16 and got to the final, it never got the chance to strike. It has had to wait for a series of pumped-up friendlies for its opportunity.
The question is why? Why is there this disconnect between the record of our most successful manager for 50 years and the fans who turned on him so ferociously at Molineux on Tuesday? If you think it’s just because Southgate tends not to start crowd favourite Jack Grealish in the biggest games, you’re kidding yourself.
Some people now distrust stability and somehow see it as a lack of ambition
Perhaps it is Southgate’s refusal to be an apologist for fan behaviour that annoys some of them
It runs much deeper than that. Some of the issues are societal. We live in an age of short-termism where we get bored very quickly. People want change and they want churn.
Stability has become something so unfamiliar that it is deeply distrusted and seen, somehow, as a lack of ambition or an admission of defeat when, actually, it is the opposite. Part of it is because Southgate is English, too.
There is a prejudice against English managers now that has its rationale in the fact all the leading bosses in the Premier League, brilliant coaches such as Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte, are German, Spanish or Italian.
English bosses aren’t part of the zeitgeist. They are regarded, inherently and unfairly, as second-rate compared to counterparts from abroad.
There is a political element to this, too. For better or for worse, politics and sport are mixing more and more. Nation states are using sport for their own ends and sport and its practitioners, partly led by examples in the U.S., are beginning to sense the power of their own platforms to do and say what they feel is right.
So again, let’s be honest about this: Southgate is a liberal marching at the front of a fanbase that contains a significant illiberal element. A lot of England fans don’t like what he stands for. Early in the Euros, remember, England players were booed by England fans for taking the knee but Southgate has remained a steadfast proponent of the gesture and its continuing importance.
Southgate is not an apologist for fan behaviour, either. He is not a demagogue. He does not play to the crowd. He does not defend the fanbase at all costs. He sticks to his principles. So he said it was an ‘embarrassment’ that England had to play Italy behind closed doors at Molineux last Saturday because of the trouble fans caused at the Euro 2020 final.
Many England fans do not share Southgate’s political views, which could explain the reaction
And when some of the 30,000 Hungarian kids allowed into the Puskas Arena for Hungary v England 12 days ago booed the England players for taking the knee, Southgate adopted a measured approach in response. ‘That’s why we do it,’ he said, ‘we do it to try to educate.’
Maybe some feel patronised by that. Maybe some feel they do not want to be educated by footballers. But Southgate is not afraid to speak out. He is not afraid to stick to his principles and to try to establish the England team as a team that reflects his own liberal values.
That is anathema to some England supporters and it is part of the reason why, when England fall to a heavy defeat in an insignificant game in the midst of a spell of prolonged success, they think they scent an opportunity and they call for his head.