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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Gareth Southgate: England manager on decision to stay, World Cup & human rights

Gareth Southgate considered stepping down as England boss because of criticism he faced before the World Cup, saying: “The last thing you want as a manager is that your presence is divisive and inhibits performance.”

The team were booed off in June following a 4-0 defeat against Hungary at Molineux in the Nations League – part of a generally poor series of results leading into the winter World Cup.

Explaining for the first time how he reached the decision to stay in his job, he told BBC Sport: “I never want to be in a position where my presence is affecting the team in a negative way.

“I didn’t believe that was the case, but I just wanted a period after the World Cup to reflect and make sure that was still how it felt.”

The 52-year-old said he asked himself: “Is it the right thing to keep taking this project on? I wanted to make sure I’m still fresh and hungry for that challenge.”

Describing his role as “the greatest privilege of my life”, he said the decision to stay was ultimately “not difficult” because of “the quality of performances and the progress that we’re making”.

“The team are still improving. We’re all gaining belief in what we’re doing,” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview conducted at the team’s training base St George’s Park, Southgate:

  • strongly suggested he considered announcing last year that Qatar would be his final tournament to “free that narrative up so the support is behind the team, and not debating whether the manager should be there or not”
  • said getting knocked out in the quarter-final was “really difficult to take” but the support from players and fans “definitely lifts you”
  • revealed he was “comfortable” with his tactics during the defeat to France and had no regrets
  • insisted England are “really competitive against everybody now” and is “very confident” about their chances at next year’s European Championship in Germany

Pre-Qatar doubts

In the immediate aftermath of his team’s defeat to France six weeks ago, Southgate said he felt “conflicted” about his future, having “found large parts of the last 18 months difficult”.

England went into the World Cup on the back of relegation from their Nations League group and during the Hungary defeat some England fans chanted “you don’t know what you’re doing” at the manager.

After failing to match both the semi-final he led England to in the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020, Southgate said he would “review and reflect”.

But a week later the FA announced he would see out the remaining two years of his contract.

Now, in his first public comments since that decision, Southgate has opened up on the effect the criticism he received following the Hungary defeat had on him.

“I was worried after that game the team would be affected by the narrative about whether the manager stay or go, and when we went into the games in September we were a little bit anxious.

“At Wembley against Germany the crowd weren’t against their team but they were waiting to see what happened.

“I’ve been around teams where that can inhibit performance, and the last thing you want as a manager is that your presence is divisive and inhibits performance.

“I knew I had support with the players and [the FA], there are bigger things at stake with England than just [that].

“My only concern… was when it feels like there might be division between what the fans want and where my position might have been, that can affect the team, and I was conscious of that leading into the World Cup.

“I felt we had great support, but I was conscious… how would things be during and after?”

Southgate says his team recovered before the World Cup, but that he wanted to be sure after the tournament that staying was the right thing for his side.

“You need to give yourself time in these situations to make good decisions,” he said.

“I think it’s easy to rush things when emotions are high, and very often you have to sleep a little bit more and come to the right conclusions.

“The question for me was… ‘is it the right thing to keep taking this project on?’ Because it’s not just the six years I’ve been with the seniors – I’ve been here 10 years with developing everything as well. So I wanted to make sure I’m still fresh and hungry for that challenge.”

‘Trying to break through history’

In an indication of how close he had come to announcing before the World Cup that he would step down following the tournament, Southgate said: “My thinking is always around, ‘How does this affect the team?’

“Is this going to give the team the best chance going into the World Cup?” he added.

“Do we need to free that narrative up so the support is behind the team, and not debating whether the manager should be there or not? But I think we came through that period.”

Asked whether he wavered as he weighed up whether to stay, Southgate said: “Not after the World Cup. In the lead-in that was a little bit different.

“I wasn’t quite sure how things would play out, and I think it’s always right to judge an international manager on their tournaments.

“Our performances were good. With France, across the flow of the game, we should win. But football is a low-scoring game where small margins make a difference.

“And we have to make sure now those small margins are turned in our favour. We’re much closer now to really having that belief to win. We’ve still got a small step to take – I saw progress in the team from our performances in the Euros.

“We’re trying to break through history here as well as against opponents that are high-level. I feel we’re really competitive against everybody now.

“Outside of France, and you could argue Croatia, we’ve probably been as consistent as any team in terms of our finishes. And I think people have enjoyed that journey with us.”

Asked how it would have felt to see someone else take over, Southgate replied: “I’m never worried about somebody else taking over and benefiting, that’s how it should work.

“We’re talking about building a future for England for now, for the next tournament, but also beyond that.”

‘Exit was difficult to take’

Southgate said the support he received from players and fans after the France defeat “definitely lifts you”.

“The moment you depart is really difficult to take, and you know the steps you have to take for the next one,” he said.

“But I don’t think you can make decisions as a manager just on having support from everybody because you’re never going to have support of everybody.”

While most of Southgate’s selections paid off in Qatar, and his team showed more attacking intent than previously, there was some criticism that he waited until the 85th minute against France to introduce in-form Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford.

When asked if he had any regrets about the match, he said: “I don’t really. What I’ve learned in this job, whenever the result doesn’t go as you hope then the solution is always the things you didn’t do, because of course nobody knows what they might look like.

“So I’m comfortable with that. I think we used the squad well. There can always be an argument for a different player providing something at a different time.”

‘Gaining belief’

When it was suggested to Southgate that some fans feel a new manager is needed to help deliver silverware for England, he said: “I think if our performances weren’t at the level they had been, then I think there would be a little bit more legitimacy in that argument.

“We’re all gaining belief in what we’re doing.

“We’re really competitive against everybody now and the game with France showed we can dominate the ball against those big teams.”

‘Greatest privilege of my life’

In the build-up to the World Cup Southgate was regularly asked to comment on the human rights issues that surrounded Qatar’s controversial hosting of the tournament.

“There are moments where life would be more straightforward for me if it was just focusing on football,” he said.

“You are very conscious of the impact of your words and you have got to be representing your country on a global stage.

“So there might be a view in our country of certain things, but you’ve also got to be an ambassador when you travel and when you’re dealing with other people.

“So it is complex, but it’s also been the greatest privilege of my life to lead my country and I’m very conscious of that honour. It’s allowed me to have life experiences I could never have expected.”

‘FA Cup a crucial platform’

Southgate was speaking before the FA Cup 4th round and said the matches would play a part in helping him select his squad for the upcoming Euro 2024 qualifiers against champions Italy and Ukraine in March.

“A lot of the teams have been playing young English players and for a lot it’s their first experience of competitive football,” he said.

“So that’s great to see young players breaking through.

“We have several players playing well. And it’s interesting to watch this period because it’s the first time players have had to go back from a major tournament straight into club football.

“The next few weeks are important for us to monitor, probably more so the players that perhaps haven’t been with us as regularly.

“But then, as we go towards March, it’s really key who is in form and who can help us to win what is a crucial game going to Naples, and then with Ukraine as well.”

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