BREAKING GROUND: GARETH SOUTHGATE’S ODYSSEY FROM MIDDLESBROUGH TO NATIONAL HERO

At the bold age of 36, defender Gareth Southgate hung his boots after 57 caps for the Three Lions and a solid career in the Premier League. Remembering notable moments in his career was easy for the football community that labelled him as a ‘loser’ ever since the penalty miss against Germany ruined his nations’ hopes. Football wouldn’t come home after his poor effort. This haunted him throughout his career and he played his last game in typical fashion. Despite missing his team’s last eleven games of the Premier League, they honored him with a starting spot in the final. Unsurprisingly, Middlesbrough lost the UEFA Cup final 4-0 against Sevilla.

Twelve years later, an unfancied England reached the semifinals in Russia. The hype in the nation could only be compared to 1990 and 1996. Gareth Southgate was the architect of this success. He was football’s Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo; he built a modern and fascinating team with limited resources. It has been decades since a manager brought hope and hype to the country’s football. This was expected from Fabio Capello, Sven Goran Erikson or Glenn Hoddle but a man from Watford with a burden on his back fulfilled the expectations.

Gareth Southgate’s journey as a football manager began in Middlesbrough where he retired only months before. His precessor, Steve McClaren, left his role at Riverside Stadium after five stable seasons. After he took charge of the Three Lions, Gareth Southgate was appointed as their new manager. This decision was risky in many aspects. On the field, he had no experience with coaching and pundits doubting his managerial ability. On paper, Southgate didn’t have the coaching qualifications to manage a club in the Premier League. He had to take courses in order to achieve those certificates. Middlesborough’s board challenged and convinced both the Premier League clubs’ chairmans and Premier League Board regarding this issue. This meant that he could reprieve his role for the continuing season but had to take classes in the following summer. Whether he was a real necessity was yet to be known.

Middlesborough was a mid-table team in McClaren’s era and were financially stable. They could land experienced managers or managers looking for their big break but opted to appoint Gareth Southgate. But the board were realistic; they knew that the current roster had no chance of repeating the success of making the UEFA Cup Final but were still strong enough to compete for the mid table. In addition, Gareth Southgate knew the dynamics of the club and the city. He played with the roster for several years and no other candidate could have known them better than him.

In his first season, he led Middlesborough to another mid-table finish like his processor McClaren. The club were not that active in the transfer window but he still made some notable signings. He sold a fan favourite, Franck Queudrue, but brought class and quality to the defense with the signings of Robert Huth and Jonathan Woodgate. Those center-backs were aimed at improving the team defensively and replace his own self. Another signing was Julio Arca, who later became the heart of the team and played 185 games for the club. They finished in 12th but they had memorable moments as a ‘giant-killer’.

Southgate’s team enjoyed the big occasions, as evident by their results against the infamous top four of the 2000s. In that season, they had beaten Chelsea once, drew both games with Arsenal and also got a point each from clashes with Manchester United and Liverpool, thus building up a strong reputation for both club and manager. For Southgate, sitting back and holding a low line was hardly an option due to the talents at his disposal. He had the players like Fábio Rochemback, Stewart Downing and Gaizka Mendieta – footballers that are better on the ball than off it. Against the higher echelons of the Premier League, Southgate’s impressive man-management came to good use, and picking up eight points out of a possible 24 was key to Middlesbrough’s hopes of maintaining their top-tier status.

They were also not shy of the goals, whether that came on their end or the opposite end. For every time they an exciting 5-1 against Bolton Wanderer or a two successive 3-1 successes over Sheffield United or Charlton Athletic, there would be a 4-0 reverse at Portsmouth or a 3-0 reverse against the unforgiving Chelsea. Their clashes were never boring and the statistics showed. They scored 44 times in the league – the second-most in the bottom half of the league – and they conceded 49, with scoreless ties being a rarity. Nevertheless, this was a fine entry into management for Gareth Southgate.

The 2007/08 season saw greater investment from the Middlesbrough boardroom. Southgate added the likes of Mido, a character that had been difficult to understand for much of his career, Jérémie Aliadière, a player that had yet to live up to his potential as well as Tuncay Şanlı, Afonso Alves, Mohamed Shawky and Jonathan Woodgate, whose move to the Riverside had been made permanent having spent the previous campaign on loan from Real Madrid. On paper, this was a very-well assembled team, but in reality, these players were affected by various issues that often held them back from achieving their full potential.

But the additions to the side did not go as Southgate as planned. Early in his Boro stint, Tuncay Şanlı revealed that he struggled to keep up with the physical demands of the training sessions in England, claiming that he began throwing up moments after beginning his journey with his new team. This was evident in his performances as he failed to light up the Premier League and continued his poor form. Luckily for the club, they didn’t make significant losses on him as he was brought in on a free transfer. However, that wasn’t the case for Afonso Alves, who Middlesbrough had broken their transfer-record for. Having scored 37 goals in the Netherlands the season prior, he couldn’t replicate that sort of efficiency in England and he too turned out to be a disappointment.

These moves were meant to replace the outgoing Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Mark Viduka who were off to Everton and Newcastle respectively. In a huge summer shake-up of their playing roster, their departing players were not adequately replaced by the incoming talent.

The season started off terribly for Southgate and Middlesbrough. As often seen with big-spending teams, the harmony and balance within the squad was unstable and the team lacked consistency. They won just twice in the opening 10 league games and over the course of the whole campaign, Southgate’s abilities were tested to the maximum. In a season where they expected to do better than the decent 12th place finish of the last campaign, they often struggled against sides in the top-half of the table. Nevertheless, despite all the on-pitch uncertainty, his status was intact with the men in the suits. His job was never truly under serious threat and in the last match of the season, their faith was enhanced as the club would seal a historic 8-1 win against Manchester City just prior to the immense funding of the Citizens by the petrodollars from the United Arab Emirates’ royal family.

Taking caution from the previous season, the Boro boardroom decided to tone down on their spending. With a limited budget, there were still some interesting signings made by the club. They roped in Justin Hoyte, the ex-Arsenal defender who was brimming with potential at one time while Marvin Emnes and Didier Digard were brought in early in the window from Sparta Rotterdam and Paris Saint-Germain respectively. However, the departures would prove to be to costly. Mark Schwarzer, one of their finest players at the time and Fábio Rochemback, a frequent name on the team-sheet under Southgate would depart, while others such as George Boateng, Lee Cattermole and Luke Young would also leave the North Yorkshire club as it became evident to the fans that survival in the upcoming campaign would be more difficult that ever before.

They started the season promisingly with a 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur, but that positivity would soon fizzle out. With a squad greatly depleted, Southgate would often lack a tactical identity and he would accommodate several players out of their natural playing positions. His team selections often defied logic and the playing style was noticeably poor. Clearly, not all the blame could be put on him: his hands were tied by the board’s incompetence to make adequate moves in the transfer window and that showed out on the turf. The goals dried out and it was clear midway through the season that maintaining their Premier League status was improbable. In the end, they finished 19th and were sent down, soon after which, Southgate was given the sack. 

Despite the sour ending, this job boosted Southgate’s reputation as his eye for developing something out of nothing was often praised. At times, it could be said he overachieved considering that this was his first job in senior management and in around three years, he achieved his objectives of keeping the club in the top-flight. At Middlesbrough, he tried to change the culture around the club and develop his own philosophy, some of which was widely-evident in the form of the players that made a name for themselves in the Premier League. His footballing knowledge was clear and his impressive man-management and communication was put to good use. Even the great Arsène Wenger was often in praise of the manager and this only boosted his status.

After the journey in the north, Southgate would take a hiatus from football before joining up with the national setup as the Football Association appointed him as the Head of Elite Development in 2011. With a roller-coaster of an international career, his experience while donning the famed Three Lions shirt was vast and he was now ready to inspire the next batch of English talent. Having not impressed at a major international tournament since the European Championships at home in 1996, this was a difficult period for the national team, but Southgate focused on improving the younger players coming through the ranks. He was only in the job for 18 months, but implemented several key changes which are still used to date such as banning 11 v 11 games for players under the age of 13. In total, there were 25 key rules adjusted and his belief in youth bore fruit when he took over the full-time job of managing the English national team.

During his time working with the FA, there was little interest in giving him a run at managing a club again, so in 2013, he was given the reigns of the England under-21s team. In a low-profile job that would eventually benefit the senior outfit, Southgate did well with them, applying an interesting brand of attacking football and going into the U21 European Championships of 2015, Southgate’s Young Lions had lost just once. At the finals however, his team were given a tough group having being paired with Portugal, Italy and hosts Sweden. England would finish bottom of their group, winning just once – a 1-0 success over eventual champions Sweden – but this was a largely forgettable outing.

His record with the young team was impressive. He won 27 of the 33 games that he took charge, scored 80 and conceded just 20 and apart from that, he integrated several household names into the setup such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, John Stones, Jack Butland, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford – all of whom would go to the World Cup in Russia with him in 2018. While he was in charge, he instilled his style and methods, providing them with the necessary belief and motivation, thus coming to his and their country’s benefit when it mattered most in the summer of 2018.

Overtime, Southgate has developed his managerial skills and tactical acumen. In his Middlesbrough days, he would often struggle to adapt to difficult situations, but as time went on, he introduced more consistency to his team, results and playing style. His non-football attributes such as his communication and motivational skills only got better and that has made him one of England’s most revered footballing figures in the modern day. 

BY SINA KIRATLI

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