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I went into the National Football Centre at St George’s Park armed with, what I thought, was a red-hot scoop.
One of my best and most secret sources within the FA had tipped me off that the Southgate family love a pantomime. I was primed and ready for the big question.
“Gareth, what’s your favourite pantomime?” The England manager looked back at me, bemused.
I needed a quick follow-up: “I’ve been told that you and your family love a pantomime?”
It was a cool response. “I mean, when I was younger, yes, my dad’s company often had a thing to the Pantomime. But no, it would be quite a while since we’ve been.
“I’m no Widow Twankey!”
Tempted to shout, “Oh, yes he is!” I instead retreated.
Full credit to Southgate for trying to play along. But in truth, the subject had gone down as well as a cheap Christmas cracker with no banger. Like a soggy sprout. Good start, Rob.
Time to ask about the more serious stuff, then.
“You’ve created such a unique atmosphere in this England squad. Is there part of you that thinks, ‘I want to bring that to a Premier League club at some point in the future?’ Is that part of your ambition?”
“I know that I could do that,” Southgate replies, bullishly. “There’s no doubt in my mind.
“There isn’t a job in world football that would intimidate or daunt you, having lived this one, frankly. You’re not going to have any higher profile, you’re not going to have any greater pressure, you’re not going to have any more complex issues.”
He also says he feels he got some bad press in his time as Middlesbrough boss almost 15 years ago and would relish the chance – at some point in the future – to prove himself as a Premier League manager again.
“I was 35 years old when I managed in the Premier League. We finished 12th and 13th, and I knew nothing like what I know now,” Southgate explains.
“Everybody would talk about Middlesbrough. ‘Oh, he got Middlesbrough relegated’. Well, yeah, in the third year, we got relegated. But I had three years of Premier League management.
“Without doubt, in my mind, the first season was the biggest achievement I’ve had, to go from captain/player to managing a multimillion-pound business in the toughest league in the world, and finish pretty much a par finish for where we were budget-wise.
“I’m confident in this role. I’m confident in whatever might be in the future. Of course, I’m not going to be here (at the FA) for 20-30 years. I don’t know what the future will be. I’m very calm about that.
“I remember talking to Jose (Mourinho) when he was at Man Utd and he said: ‘you know, when you’ve done the role you’re in now, you’ll be able to do anything’. Really? I thought that was probably right, but seven years into it, it’s definitely right.”
So how does he feel about the job, seven years after first taking it? Does he enjoy being England manager as much now, as he used to?
“Good question,” came the thoughtful response. “My day-to-day work I love because I work alongside good people, working with the team. We have players that we like a lot. They’re responsive to everything that you do. They want to get better. We work with top players, so that’s a privilege.
“The big games that you win, of course, are enjoyable afterwards, for a few minutes. So that is a very small hit of enjoyment.
“A night like Hampden (where England beat Scotland 3-1 in September) where you’re representing England, you’re going into the cauldron, the team play well, we win. Those are great nights. You do enjoy that as you sit back on the bus, but it’s brief. I can’t deny that.
“The victories, as you’re in the game longer, they last for less and less time because there’s always the next challenge”.
Staying unbeaten in 2023
So, how does Southgate assess 2023? A year which England finished with something of a whimper – a draw in Skopje and a tepid 2-0 win at Wembley over Malta.
However, England went unbeaten throughout the whole 12 months, and qualified for the Euros top of the group and as one of the top seeds. That’s provided a less daunting group for the finals, which includes Denmark, Slovenia, and Serbia.
Southgate admits that is a much more appealing prospect than the teams England met in qualifying.
“We had definitely the toughest qualifying group in terms of rankings. Ukraine, Italy were the two big concerns. But we knew North Macedonia had big results in the past as well.
“So, yeah, to go to Italy and win and then back that up with beating them at home… they were important results, but also good performances.”
Harry Maguire has had a very tough 2023. Exiled from the Manchester United starting XI, until injuries gave him the opportunity to play towards the end of the calendar year. Jeered and mocked by opposing supporters – most obviously in Scotland, but also in North Macedonia.
Southgate tells me he was right to keep picking him for his country, even when Maguire wasn’t playing for his club. And the England boss has nothing but admiration for how he has coped with the toughest time he has faced in his career.
“He’s a resilient character and you’ve got to have that resilience. If you’re playing at a club like Manchester United, you’re talking one of the biggest clubs in the world. There is always going to be any number of stories in the news every day about a club like that.
“We know that he can play in the biggest games, we’ve seen him in the tournaments, we know what he brings to the group. In my view, you back your players and I’ve felt at the times we’ve felt the need to do that, it’s been the right thing to do.
“We’ve always had belief in him. People say ‘you have your favourites’, but it’s not a case of ‘they’re the people I like the most’. They’re the people that have played well for us, they’re the ones that we think are still our best players.”
Nurturing the Bellingham-Kane connection
Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane are indisputably among England’s best. Crucial if there are genuine hopes of winning the Euros. Southgate agrees.
“You’re 100 per cent right, your best chance of winning is to have your best players available,” he says.
“I think any football club in the world, even Manchester City, when they don’t have certain players, it takes something out of the team.
“We’re fortunate that in a lot of positions, we’ve got really good competition and the drop off isn’t too bad. And the key, of course, is to find a way to win whoever you have available. So I think Jude only played five of our 10 games last year, for example, so we try to make sure that we’re developing others for those eventualities.
“Harry and Jude are both playing exceptionally well at their clubs. They’re obviously both at huge football clubs so they have to perform under pressure every week. That’s the sort of environment we want our players in.”
He also admits that he’s encouraged Bellingham to get forward more in an England shirt, as he has done for Real Madrid, to try to nurture the understanding with Kane.
“We have played him higher – Jude just off Harry in some of the matches. That has allowed us to attack and defend in a slightly different way. We’d be mad not to try and get that partnership working together.
“The maturity to adapt to that, the way he has, says everything, really, about how he is as a player and as a character.”
Not that Southgate will allow Bellingham to forget about his defensive duties, when I ask whether that could be Bellingham’s role in the future – an attacking number 10?
“He has got some responsibility,” the boss says, animatedly. “He might not always do that, but he has got some responsibility to get back. So if he’s watching, let’s get that right!”
Wildcard entries for the Euros?
While Bellingham and Kane are shoe-ins for the Euros squad, Southgate hasn’t ruled out one or two wildcards staking a late claim to be in the 23.
“I think there are one or two players that haven’t been capped yet that could still make the summer,” Southgate says. “I’d be certain about that. It should be harder to get in the team now. We’re established, we’re not an ageing squad, so this team isn’t going to suddenly drop after this next tournament.
“Our young players, if you’re talking 23 and lower, some of them have got 20-30 caps already. So actually we’re where we’ve wanted to be for ten years.”
Looking ahead to Euro 2024, Southgate tries very hard to walk a knife edge: he knows England are real contenders to lift the trophy, but he also wants to shy away from any additional pressure, which might label his team as favourites, or arrogant.
In his time in charge of the team, Southgate says his proudest achievement, is returning a sense of pride to both the players, and the fan base.
“Pride is something we all have, that’s the honour of representing England. That’s why I wanted to make English football better when I came here to work on youth development, when I came here to work with the U21s.
“The dream is always to be winning the trophy that we haven’t had for an increasing number of years now.
“Yes, we’ve had the first semi-final for however long. We had the first final for however long. We’re still trying to break history here because we’ve never been to a final away from England, we’ve never won a European Championship, so we are trying to break barriers down all the time.
“Pride alone won’t be enough to do that. We have to play well, we have to manage well. We have to, as a group of staff, work well together. So I think the pride is inherent with wearing the badge.
“We’ve always got to remember and recognise we’re part of this timeline of England football, so we should appreciate that and cherish it.
“But good decisions are what’s required. Players playing well, everybody committed to the cause, everybody sacrificing themselves for the group. That’s how we’ll win.
“We know we’re capable because we’ve been so close. It’s eminently possible.”