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Five years in the proverbial hotseat for Gareth Southgate, and come late afternoon at the Estadi Nacional in the principality of Andorra, there was no seat hotter than the one that should have accommodated the England manager in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier – burnt to destruction by a fire on the touchline.
There have been many emergencies in the Southgate years, from racism, to mass crowd trouble, to Wayne Rooney’s wedding crashing, and none more so than the classic Football Association crisis that originally propelled him into the job. Yet here he is outlasting all but one of his recent predecessors, Sven Goran Eriksson, who, by the five-year mark had agreed to quit after the following World Cup finals over the fake Sheik fake scandal. By comparison, Southgate’s years have been an unqualified success.
His 65th game in charge against Andorra in a World Cup qualifier, and the Southgate years have been extraordinary. The last England manager with the same longevity was the late Sir Bobby Robson, who reigned for eight years and for all the resonance of the 1990 World Cup finals cannot match Southgate’s current tournament record. Yet here was Southgate once again being forced to confront the latest difficult issue of the day, the vaccination of his players against Covid, while also trying to win football matches.
It was a rare misstep for the England manager on this occasion, when he seemed to equivocate on his strong stance that there is no alternative to the Covid vaccination. He has been wounded by the waves of abuse from the antivax lobby that has rolled in since his summer video on behalf of the NHS encouraging vaccine take-up. He even detailed the threats from the unmentionables who abused him with the taunt that he could be “in front of a Nuremberg type trial in 10 years”. “People are quite vicious with comments,” he added, “it does make you think twice about speaking out.”
That would be a pity, because Southgate’s readiness to speak out will be one of the great legacies of his time as England manager when at last he does move on. As for the other part, the football has been good too and as he approaches the endgame to the Qatar 2022 qualification, with Hungary to follow at Wembley on Tuesday, he reflected on the dismal show he inherited in 2016. Sam Allardyce had been sacked after one game. Iceland had beaten England at Euro 2016 playing Allardyce football, and many no longer wanted to do it anymore.
“There were several players that weren't interested in coming,” Southgate recalled when he looked back on that first game against Malta at Wembley in front of 81,781 fans who may even have been unsure why they were there. From such unpromising starts came a World Cup semi-final and then the final of Euro 2020 last summer. The emergence of the great talent of England’s Elite Player Performance Plan generation, born out of the failure of the England team of the 2010 World Cup finals has meant the right players with the right manager. The whole picture has changed. Although this is still England, where at best the national team operates under a fragile pact with the impatient nation it represents.
“There's lots of fabulous memories to be honest,” Southgate said, “individual games, tournaments, progression of players. I think the most important has been the connection with the fans from the apathy a few years ago to where we are now. Trying to get players to come, we had pull-outs at the first camp. I'd only taken over temporarily two days before the [squad] announcement and we met up. But there were several players that weren't interested in coming.
“Now the players are desperate to be a part of it even though they haven't quite been in the initial squad selected. So for me that's a good feel for the way the players are, the way the camps are, that they enjoy coming and they want to be a part of it.”
It helps that the players whom Southgate can call upon instinctively feel international grade, even when he is summoning replacements. When one can call as cover the Roma centre-forward, in Tammy Abraham, or last season’s Champions League final winning left-back, Ben Chilwell, then that demonstrates a certain depth at Southgate’s disposal. Away to Andorra 14 years ago was where David Nugent struck – or rather nudged – the one international goal of his single-cap England career. It was a marvellous collectors’ piece but in 2021 Southgate is not obliged to scour the Championship for strikers.
He will reward one of his longstanding loyalists, Kieran Trippier, with the captaincy against Andorra. It also sounds like Jadon Sancho will start. Southgate said that the Manchester United man has found the step up to the Premier League difficult with many of his Bundesliga opposition at Borussia Dortmund having failed truly to test him. “They [Dortmund] have lots of games they win comfortably, but early on he has had games like Wolves in the bottom third, but their intensity will have surprised him,” Southgate said. “You have got to live with that.”
It is comments like that which reveal the strong views of an outwardly mild man. He was vague about how long he might continue in the job but either way he will be a tough act to follow.
Southgate: I was told I could be in front of 'Nuremberg trial' for advocating vaccination
By Mike McGrath
Gareth Southgate believes footballers are living in fear of talking about vaccinations, revealing he was told he could face a “Nuremberg” trial because of his own support.
He says players are vulnerable to conspiracy theories on social media and also expect a backlash should they speak on the topic.
“If you’re receiving messages when you support the programme that say ‘You could be up in front of a Nuremberg-type trial in 10 years’ and people are quite vicious with comments, it does make you think twice about speaking out,” Southgate said.
“What if you are on the wrong side? At the moment, I couldn’t be sure I am on the right side. I am comfortable that I’ve had the vaccine. I’m comfortable that I think it was the right thing to do a video for the NHS. But I also recognise that others might not be so keen to put themselves in that situation. We’ve seen high-profile people with people outside their house. They are less sure they should be speaking publicly about that because if something did go wrong, god forbid, further down the line, fingers are pointing back at them.
“At their age they are more open to some of these conspiracy theories because they are reading social media more, they are perhaps more vulnerable to those sort of views.From what I can see there is a bit of confusion around.”
Kateryna Monzul will lead an all-female refereeing team for the World Cup qualifier in Andorra tonight and Southgate added: “It is a very important moment for gender equality, absolutely. For us, it’s almost irrelevant. It’s the quality of the official that is important, not the gender. So we are looking forward to being a part of what is a special occasion.”