The disgraced exit of Sam Allardyce after just 67 days in charge saw a nightmare 2016 for the England football team plunge to new depths. Since then, speculation surrounding the former Sunderland manager’s successor has been incessant. The FA quickly promoted Gareth Southgate on an interim basis for the final four games of the year, and it appears increasingly likely that the former Middlesbrough boss will take the reins on a permanent basis from the start of 2017.
In fact, the Telegraph – who were behind the sting on Allardyce – claim that the deal is already agreed in principle. It’s a strange turn of events, particularly as Southgate essentially ruled himself out of contention to replace Roy Hodgson following England’s embarrassing departure at Euro 2016, but the 46-year-old will first have to concentrate on Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifier with Scotland before facing Spain in a friendly next Tuesday.
The big question, however, is whether Southgate is indeed the right man to lead the Three Lions to Russia and beyond. Let’s take a closer look at his credentials.
Whilst Sven-Goran Eriksson (three quarter-finals) and Fabio Capello (England’s second best win ratio, behind the anomaly of Allardyce) were far from awful during their respective spells, a large portion of the English following still believe that the manager’s role should be reserved for an Englishman. Southgate doesn’t only tick that box; he is also a former player that millions can remember seeing wear the famous shirt – even if the lasting image is the iconic penalty miss against Germany at Euro ‘96.
However, simply representing England over 50 times as a player isn’t enough to command international football’s biggest and most scrutinised managerial role. If success on the pitch was an indication of aptitude for the job, the fantasy appointments of David Beckham or Alan Shearer would be serious candidates. Southgate’s greatest asset lies with the fact he understands both the FA and the manager’s position itself.
Southgate was appointed head of elite development back at the start of 2011, working on the coaching team at the U20 World Cup in 2011, before succeeding Stuart Pearce as the U21s manager in August 2013. Six years of direct involvement have allowed the manager to build winning relationships, and it’s evident in virtually all of his press dealings. He may lack the charisma of Allardyce, Eriksson, et al. but he continually makes the right noises – at least from an FA viewpoint. Avoiding further controversy will be top of the FA's agenda, which gives credence to their eagerness for a permanent agreement.
England’s U21 side qualified for the 2015 European Championship with minimal fuss. Given that easy qualification for the World Cup will be the first expectation of the senior manager in 2017, those experiences can only aid Southgate’s cause, particularly as some of those stars have since been promoted to the first team.
Moreover, the established faces of Harry Kane and John Stones have been joined by Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane, and Jordan Pickford while Marcus Rashford has been recalled under Southgate following Allardyce’s omission back in September. For all his failings, Hodgson attempted to set the ball rolling on a changing of the guard by introducing fresh blood. Southgate already appears ready to continue it, and his experience of working with the U21s should leave him primed to instigate a new (and hopefully successful) era void of the issues that have held England back for the best part of 20 years.
Despite being a decade into his post-playing career, Southgate is young, hungry, and understands modern football. Those ingredients have been key for some of the most notable managers of the past decade or so, with Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, and Mauricio Pochettino all fitting that bill. Furthermore, while It might not always show, Southgate is passionate about the England football team, regularly citing his time with the Three Lions as the pinnacle of his playing days.
Perhaps the more pertinent issue is whether he truly believes it to be the right role at this time.
For all the positives, and there are several, a permanent appointment of Southgate would leave a lot of fans worried. Quite frankly, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to understand those reasons for pessimism.
The England hot seat is one of the most iconic jobs in sport, and is supposed to be reserved for candidates with experience and success at the top. While Southgate may have guided the U21 to Euro 2015, the Young Lions were pitiful as they crashed out in the group phase on Czech soil.
Southgate’s club management career has hardly sparkled either. After enjoying a successful honeymoon period at Middlesbrough, finishing 12th and 13th in his opening two seasons, he eventually took Boro down to the Championship in 2009 in spite of a very promising start. His sacking followed just a few months later and is, until now, his only experience in the club arena.
His record hardly screams out dream England candidate, and it’s hard not to draw comparisons with Steve McClaren, who he succeeded at Middlesbrough. Like Southgate, McClaren spent several years in the national camp before being appointed manager while a lot of the same accusations regarding a lack of experience were cast towards his direction too. Both men have been questioned about their abilities to stop a rot once things start going badly; under the current circumstances, that’s a trait that no Three Lions coach can afford to possess.
Another perceived downfall of McClaren was an inability to handle the dressing room, which could be planted at Southgate’s door also. It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact reason for England’s poor performances against Malta and Slovenia last month but, for many fans, they are another black dot against Southgate’s application. It may be a little early to jump the gun as he’d only had a few days to work with the squad; nonetheless, similar performances against Scotland and Spain would get the alarm bells ringing.
The greatest cause for concern, though, is Southgate’s resistance to take the role. Even if the deal is ready to be announced following this international fixture list, believing that he now wants the role as much as Allardyce did would be hard to swallow. Four months is a long time in football, but it’s absurd to think that someone who was hellbent against being considered in the summer is now seemingly on the cusp of taking the position.
Regardless of those hesitations, a lot of questions would need to be answered by Southgate, and strong performances are the only answer. There’s nothing to say he won’t be capable of producing the goods, yet there’s also no hard evidence to suggest that he will. As the leading candidate for the national job, that’s a rather scary prospect indeed.
More worryingly, at a time when England needs greater guidance than ever, the talent pool of managers is shallower than ever.
Should England beat Scotland as expected and follow that with a positive display against Spain just four days later, it would be difficult to picture anything other than a permanent Southgate appointment. After the circus of shame that has followed the Three Lions at every step over the past few months, Greg Clarke and the FA’s senior executives could be excused for taking the safe option. Meanwhile, overlooking the interim boss for the full-time role would suggest that investment in the 46-year-old has been ineffectual.
A quick glance at the betting odds highlights two unequivocal features. Firstly, the current standard of active English coaches is worryingly inadequate; secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, the England hot seat doesn’t attract foreign coaches like it once did. Realistically, the only other options are Eddie Howe, Roberto Mancini, and Ralf Rangnick, Jurgen Klinsmann and Laurent Blanc could arguably be involved in discussions at a push. However, the fact Glenn Hoddle is an outsider after a decade out of management says it all.
In spite of the ill-fated spell at Burnley, Howe has proven that he is capable of improving a team that’s short of confidence. Likewise, he has shown that, given time, he can stamp his authority on proceedings. Whether he can control a dressing room with such strong personalities is another debate altogether but, if the FA are aiming to replicate the Joachim Low-Germany blueprint, the Bournemouth boss would arguably offer the long-term stability that England desire. At this stage, though, it seems unlikely that Clarke and co. would be willing to take that gamble.
As for Klinsmann, the international pedigree of overachieving with an average USMNT bodes well while his standing in the game commands the respect that the England dressing room craves. Then again, his character might not suit the FA vision right now while failure with Germany in 2006 could haunt any application too.
Is Gareth Southgate the ideal candidate? Probably not. At this moment, however, that might not be the most appropriate question. Given the lack of alternatives, he might be the only serious option available.