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Black Sky Thinking

A New England: Gareth Southgate, Cultural Revolutionary
Tim Burrows , July 8th, 2021 11:05

"30 years of hurt" has often felt like it applied to the bombastic jingoism related to England, but all that is changing with Gareth Southgate's diverse, intelligent team and their rise to the finals of the Euros, argues Tim Burrows. Image: Catherine Ivill/Getty

"The standard of leaders in this country the past couple of years has been poor, looking at that man [Gareth Southgate], he’s everything a leader should be, respectful, humble, he tells the truth," Gary Neville said as cameras panned over England’s celebrating players and coaching staff at the end of a glorious Euro 2020 semi-final win against a courageous Denmark. It felt like a pertinent intervention: here was his old running mate in England’s celebrated mid-90s back four, leading a team of young footballers into territory uncharted for almost six decades. More than that, here was a man of quiet integrity who had led a national side used to buckling under the weight of not just history, but a thousand tabloid headlines. 

Although Brian Blessed himself is largely blameless, I have often thought about the tone of the actor’s overblown battlecry that played before the opening game of England's dismal 2010 World Cup campaign. Over a montage of hackneyed English cliches of Stonehenge, the white cliffs of Dover, a ruddy-faced fan dressed as a knight, and slow-mo footage of John Terry heading a ball like a warrior, portentous music played out as Blessed bellowed the famous martial rallying cry from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Once more unto the breach dear friends!". He did so in a tone of aggressive impotence that arguably encapsulated Englishness gone awry.

Once more, indeed. For years, following England’s national football team involved encounters with this sort of risible bombast. Indeed, England is a nation so perennially unsure of its sense of self and identity that hacks and chancers have snuck in with grim visions that led to the divisiveness of our current age. Before the rhetoric of the popular English press directed the political wind in the form of Brexit, it controlled the perception and tone of football. The nadir was perhaps Piers Morgan’s 1996 Mirror cover that exploited  Second World War jingoism (“ACHTUNG! FRITZ!") and put tin helmets on Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne. England crashed out of that competition after being defeated by Germany in a penalty shoot-out, just as in 2010 that Brian Blessed video preceded a campaign that ended in scowls and remorse that a group of individual talents that included Premier League high-performers Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Terry, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would fail so badly. It all added up to something extremely dissonant, a pretend heroism performed through gritted teeth that didn’t tally with the reality of England, perennial bottlers, the incessant tournament stinker-outers. The ensuing  4-1 defeat to Germany in the last 16 of the tournament felt inevitable – and also necessary.  

Fast forward to last night and the cavernous new Wembley stadium, hardly a celebrated venue since it opened 14 years ago, was finally feeling loved by the tens of thousands who filled it. Grown men were bug-eyed and wobbling in each other’s loose embrace. Younger friends shook their heads and lolloped about in a warm giddiness after England’s second goal, a lucky strike on the rebound from Harry Kane after his penalty was saved by Kasper Schmeichel, went in. They linked arms, flailing haphazardly, somehow unsure of how this was supposed to work. After a long break from sporting crowds due to the pandemic, these people no longer distanced from each other were together, united… and happy? Against Denmark, 60,000 England fans newly reconnected to their national men’s football team filled the place with a goonish pandemonium. It’s becoming, it’s becoming, Wembley’s becoming home. 

This wasn’t supposed to feel like this. In fact, the arrival of a new round of tournament football in a country where questions of identity so often get mired in an overheated and mostly phony culture war was starting to feel like the last thing we needed. GB News launched on 13th June, the day England played their first group game, a politely efficient one-nil win against Croatia. But every step of the way the quality of the football has outpaced the reactionary spasms of the grim chancers at the top of politics. Priti Patel is now tweeting her admiration for the team. Boris Johnson has gone from refusing to confirm or deny he even knew that the England team were playing in a tournament this summer to appearing at last night’s game, having hurriedly shoved an England shirt over his usual ‘divorcee on a post-work pissup’ office attire.

So what happened? Enter Gareth Southgate, the changeling, the International Football Man They Could Not Touch. His England career is pretty much a montage that sums up the decline of the English national side in the late 90s and early 00s: Southgate, hands behind his head looking down after he missed the ‘96 penalty, waiting to be made a scapegoat in the tabloids; Southgate being subbed on to see out a gritty 2-2 draw against Argentina in World Cup ‘98  that ended in failed penalties again thanks to a new villain, David Beckham; Southgate playing in an unfamiliar midfield role in a 0-1 defeat to Germany, a ‘fatal gamble’ (Sunday Times) by Kevin Keegan who admitted he was out of his depth as he resigned in a toilet cubicle after losing the last game at the original Wembley stadium before it was demolished. But now, a new one: Southgate looking to the heavens after the England team he managed finally beat Germany in a knockout game. The 2010 loss to Germany marked the moment things started to change. It led directly to the hiring of Southgate as the head of youth development in the aftermath. The plan was to build from the ground up as Germany had after their failure in Euro 2000. What was needed wasn’t hubris, but humility. 

When England were drawn against Germany for the first knockout round of Euro 2020, there were fears that a week of tabloid-fuelled jingoism would descend upon us, but it never happened – these days most of us simply do not mention the war. Instead the players mention each other, what they play for, the reasons for being there, ‘the pride in the shirt’. The FA were uncharacteristically smart after 2010 and hired professionals to try and reconnect England’s players with the national side, while amplifying the multiple national identities of players, whether ties were shared with Ireland or Jamaica or beyond – the majority of the players have parents or grandparents born outside of the UK.

Patriotism has always struck me as a strange beast at the best of times, especially when it comes to England. We would be here all day if we were trying to define what exactly it is that marks England out. But the patriotism of international football has always struck me as a simple affair, even despite the actions of the hooligan fringe of the supporters who would arrive at tournaments to throw around cafe furniture. Support the international team you feel affinity with, cheer them on, get upset when they inevitably lose, go to bed. Southgate’s magnanimous diplomacy is revered partly because, as Neville suggested, it is a quality so thin on the ground in modern discourse. With a light touch he has found an ability to explain why the national team mean so much to people without pretending there is some innate, Brian Blessedian roar in every true born English person. “Like with our own memories of watching England, everyone has a different idea of what it actually means to be English, what pride means" he wrote in his essay for the Players’ Tribune. That Southgate, a man who grew up in a modest house in a south English New Town, can articulate himself so well rubs the political chancers up the wrong way. One Tory strategist even questioned whether the England manager, who had done work experience at the Croydon Advertiser and said if he didn’t make it as a footballer wanted to be a journalist, had even written the piece himself

In the midst of the current culture war, a group of ludicrously paid and somehow ludicrously down-to-earth footballers have given the country something that has been kept out of reach since long before the pandemic: a feeling of collective joy. This sentiment is sometimes claimed for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, but that was a red herring, a false memory, and far less of an achievement than what Southgate has presided over. Rather than pageantry, this is sporting excellence, the welding together of Premier League academy systems and lower league competitiveness through coherent leadership and low-key but total belief. 

Backing up this ability on the field have been common-sensical acts of what should be considered normal, human-shaped empathetic moments, such as when Jordan Henderson quote tweeted a queer fan who was celebrating going to see England play Germany without experiencing the abuse he feared may occur, saying ‘football is for everyone no matter what.’ The tournament follows Marcus Rashford’s incredible campaign for free school meals throughout the Covid pandemic. Most impressive has been Raheem Sterling’s conduct in confronting racism in the past few years, and silencing some (but by no means all) tabloid bias against him in the process. 

Here, Southgate’s skill has not been to lead the charge, or as some Tory MPs imply, to inject his players with the teachings of Marx in between tactical drills – but to allow them to express the way they feel both on and off the field. This sounds simple, but England managers in the past have seen this kind of behaviour as a dereliction of duty. Fabio Capello’s control-obsessed tenure culminated in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the England camp Peter Crouch called a ‘luxurious prison’, with security and army personnel protecting their hotel. Jermaine Defoe later recalled things got so dull that he and Wayne Rooney watched the latter’s wedding video from start to finish. Southgate’s approach is as much about being hands off as Capello’s was hands on. In being empowered to talk about the racism they have endured and to take a knee before each game, the England team feels galvanised and made new. An England team that at long, long last has reckoned with its own sense of shackled duty, of playing as punishment, has instead learned to utilise a sense of togetherness and solidarity. 

There is a reason the FT suggested some Conservatives fear Southgate is the purveyor of something the paper called ‘deep woke’, and it isn’t just that he has been able to connect patriotism and leftwing political strands better than the Labour leader, Keir Starmer. It’s that he is doing a good, coherent job. Unlike Boris Johnson or the sound technicians on GB News, he knows what he is doing, and has nullified this England side’s dwindling band of detractors in the process. Quite what winning the Euros by beating Italy on Sunday evening would mean for the 56 million people living in England in the medium to long term is moot. But for the half of the country that is following the exploits of this well-drilled, transparently put-together team of elite young football professionals, it would bring an elongated moment of unbridled joy in this uncertain summer. It already has to me.