BURTON-ON-TRENT, England — Gareth Southgate mentions the letter almost as an aside. He had come to his house in the Yorkshire countryside. He does not go into detail about its content beyond the fact that it was not exactly constructive feedback. It was best described, he said, as a “very strange letter about race”.
A few years ago, perhaps, Southgate, 52, would have found it disturbing: not only for the views he espoused, but also for the violation of his privacy, the implicit threat in an unsolicited email arriving at his doorstep. family. It is not, however, the first correspondence in this sense that he has received. Repeated exposure has thickened his skin.
More often than not, the letters arrive at his office in St. George’s Park, the sprawling complex on the outskirts of the city of Burton that serves as home to England’s various national teams. They are, as a rule, completely anonymous: no name, no return address. It’s often about his views on racial equality, or his support for his players taking a knee before games, but not exclusively. His stance on the closures also attracted a steady volume of mail. His call for people to be vaccinated against the coronavirus caused a torrent. Little of it was free.
Southgate had no intention, when he was hastily installed as England manager in September 2016, to make his voice heard on any of these issues. Soft-spoken and cerebral, he hardly has the air of a debater.
Furthermore, the experiences of his predecessors taught him that there were already many ways to fail as England manager: not qualifying for tournaments; qualify for tournaments but not win them; refusing to change captain; using an umbrella; drinking a pint of wine. He knew the easy route would be to “stick to football.”
Southgate after being hired as England manager in 2016. He led his country to a World Cup semi-final two years later. Credit…Niklas Halle’N/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
He avoided it only because he felt he had no other choice.
“Some of these problems have found us,” he said. “We had players racially abused in Bulgaria. It was important that we take a position. I have chosen to take a step towards others.”
He knows, however, that his approach has come at a cost. “Some fans will not agree with the results,” he said. “There are some who will disagree with you on the quality of performance.” That is the same deal that all of his forerunners took; Those are the terms and conditions of the job.
The difference, as Southgate put it, is that “now you have a third group”: the letter writers and anonymous correspondents who oppose not so much the team he serves or the way he plays, but who he is and what he’s doing. what are you doing. think
The England manager is supposed to be a unifying national figure, someone for the country to come together in pursuit of a shared ambition. The problem, as Southgate discovered, is that England is no longer a place that is easily unified on anything.
“I have probably alienated certain fans,” he said. “I feel comfortable with that.”
The end of the Affair
The first and biggest surge of England’s love affair with Southgate came in that fervent summer of 2018, when he led a young and approachable national team to the cusp of a World Cup final. It was weird, and it was intense: he was introduced as the next prime minister, and he just revived the vest.
The encore, three years later, was only slightly smarter: Southgate was serenaded with a reworked version of Atomic Kitten’s “Whole Again” as England reached the European Championship final on home soil. The Times of London published an article titled: “How to be a Gareth: why decent guys are attractive.”
“There are very few public figures who are seen as unifying and trustworthy,” said Luke Tryl, UK director at the More in Common research group. “It’s usually just people like David Attenborough.” On the eve of last year’s European Championship, Tryl said, polls placed Southgate in a similar group.
Not more than 18 months later, the contrast is marked. England could easily have qualified for Qatar. He could make it to the World Cup thanks to appearances in the semifinal and final of his last two major tournaments. He could be considered by Lionel Messi, no less, as one of half a dozen favorites to lift the trophy next month. But that feeling of togetherness is a distant memory.
Last month England were relegated from their Nations League group, having failed to win a single game. Southgate’s team were booed by their own fans in a home loss to Hungary and in a loss to Italy in Milan. Southgate has been accused of inhibiting his rich array of attacking talents (Harry Kane, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka) through an excessive desire for caution, wasting a golden generation.
“I know what the narrative is about how we set up the team,” Southgate said. “But the funny thing is that I don’t remember any of this around the 2018 World Cup. Or when we played against Germany, Ukraine and Denmark,” at Euro 2020, “people didn’t say it wasn’t good to see.”
Southgate traces the roots of that disaffection to England’s first games after the lockdown, in September 2020, a grim and muted pair of Nations League games against Iceland and Denmark.
“It was a strange period,” he said. “The matches were behind closed doors. We lived in a bubble, being tested every second. It was a miserable experience. Certain players were not there. Others, we had to manage their minutes. They were almost preseason games, but all hell broke loose around the style of play. I don’t think we’ve shaken off that.”
However, there is an alternate timeline. England’s final tune-up games for the following summer’s European Championship were held in the northern city of Middlesbrough. It was the first time the Southgate team had played in front of fans since the start of the pandemic and since the protests that followed the murder in the United States of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of the police.
The decision by English players to kneel before matches is just one of the issues for fans to decide. Credit…Pool photo by Catherine Ivill
When his players took a knee before kick-off in the first game, against Austria, an audible proportion of the crowd booed. Southgate later admitted that he had been “disappointed” by the response. But the players continued to kneel: Southgate confirmed in Doha on Sunday that they would kneel again on Monday before playing Iran.
“I think we have a situation where some people seem to think it’s a political position that they don’t agree with,” he said. “That’s not the reason we’re doing it.”
The perception that international management is some sort of part-time job, a few games a year, plenty of time to walk the dogs, rankles Southgate. “There’s not a morning that I don’t wake up immediately thinking about what needs to be done,” she said.
His days tend to end with a late-night phone call with his assistant, Steve Holland. “You’re constantly thinking about how we play, who we pick,” he said. “It never stops, really.”
On that subject, Southgate knows he can’t win. In the weeks and months before his team left for the World Cup, he was chided for being too loyal to some players and insufficiently lenient to others. Why did he keep choosing Harry Maguire? Why didn’t he build his team around Trent Alexander-Arnold? What was the precise location of James Madison?
“The national team will always divide the fans, whatever the sport,” he said. “People see their own player in a certain light. We cannot see if the last few performances have been good or bad. We have to think in a longer period of time. What does our data tell us? What have we seen? How are they playing in bigger games, against better opponents, under real pressure? It’s a screening process.”
His task, as he sees it, has been to remain stable in a world prone to volatility. He has become increasingly careful, he said, with the media he consumes, limiting his exposure to the frantic and ever-changing debates about who should be on his team.
But Southgate has to be just as cautious “with the first few pages as with the last.” In England, it’s not just on the issue of who should be his first choice back that there is, as he put it, “a lot of polarizing opinion, and not much room for nuance.”
However, answering questions that are not related to your team and your sport has become a danger to your job. In his first interviews as England manager, he noted that “there weren’t many questions about football.” His tenure has been marked not only by covid and the Black Lives Matter moment, but by the enduring sore of the World Cup in Qatar.
Southgate’s player selection is a constant topic of conversation for England fans. He says he tries not to listen.Credit… Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
On each issue, he has done his best to choose his path carefully. She admitted that, for example, she has found the subject of Qatar “overwhelming.”
“This is a country that is being criticized internally for modernizing too quickly,” he said. “We have to be respectful of other cultures. It’s complicated. I can’t jump around in public and expect people to sit around a table.” Even so, on this and all the other issues he has dealt with, he believes he has been “more active” than he imagined. “I can’t be a loose cannon,” he said. “But I recognize my responsibility.”
He knows that approach may have made his job difficult. Tryl’s research indicates that, unlike the US, England does not contain what are known as stacked identities: an individual’s stance on Brexit is not a reliable indicator, for example, of their perception of lockdowns or vaccination , much less issues such as abortion or universal health care, where there is a broad social consensus.
“There is a lot of overlap and divergence,” Tryl said. The perception, however, is different. “Half the country thinks we’re more divided than ever,” she said, and that perception itself has power.
Southgate, no matter how carefully it has tried to quell rather than provoke controversy, has not been able to escape it. In a country that defines itself by division, even trying to find nuance requires taking sides or being assigned, and dealing with the consequences.
“He could have dodged it all,” Southgate said. “But when this is over, I want to be able to look back and say that I stood up for what I believed in.”