BURTON ON TRENT, England. Gareth Southgate refers to the letter almost as a digression. He arrived at his home in the Yorkshire countryside. He doesn’t go into detail about its content, except for the fact that it wasn’t exactly constructive feedback. It can best be described, he says, as “a very strange letter about race.”
A few years ago, perhaps the 52-year-old Southgate would have found this unsettling: not only the views he championed, but the violation of his privacy, a threat hidden in an unsolicited letter that landed on his family’s doorstep. However, this is not the first correspondence of this kind that he has received. Repeated exposure thickens his skin.
Most of the time, letters arrive at his office in St George’s Park, a sprawling complex near the town of Burton that serves as the headquarters for various England national teams. They are usually completely anonymous: no name, no return address. They often concern his views on racial equality or his support for players who kneel before games, but not only. His stance on blocking has also attracted a steady stream of emails. His call to people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus caused a storm of emotions. Few things were free.
When he was rushed into being England manager in September 2016, Southgate wasn’t going to have his voice heard on any of those matters. Soft and reasonable, he hardly looks like a polemicist.
In addition, the experience of his predecessors taught him that as an England manager there were already many ways to fail: not qualifying for tournaments; qualifying but not winning tournaments; refusal to change captain; using an umbrella; drinking pint of wine. He knew the easiest way would be to “stick to football”.
He only avoided it because he felt he had no choice.
“Some of these problems have found us,” he said. “We had players who were racially abused in Bulgaria. It was important that we take a stand. I decided to step into others.”
However, he knows his approach has come at a cost. “Some fans don’t agree with your results,” he said. “You have those who won’t go with you in terms of performance.” It is the same as all its predecessors; those are the working conditions.
The difference, as Southgate put it, is “now you have a third group”: letter writers and anonymous correspondents who object not so much to the team he builds or how it plays, but to who he is and what he does. . thinks.
The England manager needs to be a unifying national figure, someone around whom the country can rally in pursuit of common ambition. The problem, as Southgate discovered, is that England is no longer a place where one can easily unite in anything.
“I probably alienated some fans,” he said. “It suits me”.
End of the novel
England’s first and biggest bout of romance with Southgate came in that hot summer of 2018 when he led a young and open national side to the World Cup final. It was strange and it was strong: he was nominated as next prime ministerand he alone revived the vest.
The reprise, three years later, was only marginally more knowing: Southgate serenaded a reworked version of Atomic Kitten’s “Whole Again” as England reached the European Championship final on home soil. The London Times published an article titled “How to be Gareth: Why Decent Guys Are Hot”.
“There are very few public figures who are seen by many as unifying and trusted,” said Luke Triel, director of the More in Common research group in the United Kingdom. “It’s usually people like David Attenborough.” On the eve of last year’s European Championship, a poll placed Southgate in a similar group, Triel said.
At no more than 18 months, the contrast is striking. England could have easily qualified for Qatar. He can get to the World Cup thanks to performances in the semi-finals and finals of the last two major tournaments. Lionel Messi would regard this as nothing less than one of half a dozen favorites lift the trophy next month. But this feeling of unity remained in a distant memory.
England were eliminated from their Nations League group last month after failing to win a single game. Southgate’s team was ridiculed by their own fans for their home defeat to Hungary and defeat to Italy in Milan. Southgate has been accused of holding back his rich array of offensive talents – Harry Kane, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka – with an over-zeal for caution, squandering a golden generation.
“I know what they say about how we built the team,” Southgate said. “But the funny thing is that I don’t remember anything like that during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Or when we played Germany, Ukraine and Denmark” – at Euro 2020 – “people didn’t say it wasn’t good to watch.”
Southgate traces the roots of that dissatisfaction to England’s first few games since lockdown in September 2020, a pair of dark, silent Nations League games against Iceland and Denmark.
“It was a strange period,” he said. “The games were played behind closed doors. We lived in a bubble, being tested every second. It was a sad experience. Some players were not. Others, we had to manage their protocols. It was almost pre-season games, but all hell broke loose around the style of play. I don’t think we got rid of it.”
However, there is an alternative timeline. The final games of England in preparation for the European Championship next summer 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 the protests that followed the police killing of black George Floyd in the US.
As his players knelt before the opening match against Austria, a good portion of the crowd booed. Southgate later admitted he was “disappointed” by the response. But the players kept on their knees: Southgate confirmed Sunday in Doha that on Monday they will again kneel before the game with Iran.
“I think we have a situation where some people believe that this is a political position that they do not agree with,” he said. “That’s not the reason we’re doing this.”
The notion that international management is some kind of part-time job – a few games a year, enough time to walk the dogs – irritates Southgate. “There is no such morning that I don’t wake up and immediately think about what needs to be done,” he said.
His days tend to end with a late-night phone call from his assistant, Steve Holland. “You always think about how we play, who we choose,” he said. “It never stops, really.”
On this occasion, Southgate knows he can’t win. In the weeks and months before his team went to the World Cup, he was chided for being too loyal to some players and not lenient enough to others. Why does he still choose Harry Maguire? Why didn’t he build his team around Trent Alexander-Arnold? What was the exact location of James Maddison?
“The selection will always divide the fans, regardless of the sport,” he said. “People see their player in a certain light. We can’t look at whether the last couple of performances were good or bad. We need to think about a longer period of time. What does our data tell us? What have we seen? How do they play big games, against stronger opponents, under real pressure? It’s a sifting process.”
His task, in his opinion, was to remain stable in a world prone to volatility. He says he has become increasingly wary of the media he consumes, limiting his involvement in the furious, diverse debate about who should be on his team.
But Southgate has to be just as careful “with the front pages as well as with the last ones.” In England, as he puts it, not only is the question of who should be his first choice, there is “many polar opinions and little room for nuance”.
However, answering questions unrelated to his team and his sport became dangerous for his job. In his first few interviews as England manager, he remarked that “there aren’t many questions about football”. His tenure was marked not only by a Covid and Black Lives Matter moment, but also by the enduring pain of the World Cup in Qatar.
On each topic, he tried to choose his path carefully. He admitted that, for example, he considers the problem of Qatar “insurmountable”.
“This country is being criticized internally for modernizing too quickly,” he said. “We have to respect other cultures. It’s complicated. I can’t jump up and down in public and expect people to walk around the table.” However, on this and all the other issues he faced, he believes he was “more active” than he could have imagined. “I can’t be a defenseless cannon,” he said. But I am aware of my responsibility.
He knows that this approach could complicate his work. Triel’s research shows that, unlike in the United States, there are no so-called stacked identities in England: a person’s position on Brexit is not a reliable indicator of, for example, their perception of quarantine or vaccination, let alone issues such as abortion or universal health care. where there is a broad social consensus.
“There are a lot of overlaps and discrepancies,” Tril said. Perception, however, is different. “Half the country thinks we’re more divided than ever,” he said, and the sentiment itself is valid.
Southgate, no matter how hard he tried to suppress rather than stir up controversy, could not avoid it. In a country that defines itself by division, even trying to find the nuances requires either accepting or appointing a party – and dealing with the consequences.
“I could dodge all of that,” 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.”