It was 1996 and Gareth Southgate was a fringe player in the England national football team, making his debut only a few months before, in December 1995. Therefore, it was a huge undertaking for Southgate to become one of England’s leaders at the UEFA EURO 1996, which England hosted, trying to secure their first international trophy since the 1966 FIFA World Cup.
But the tournament, which prompted the chant “It’s coming home”, heard all over the world in the last years, ended in tears for England and specifically for Southgate, who missed a penalty in the shoot-out against Germany in the semi-final, which saw their opponents progress to the last act and win the trophy.
Southgate went on and became a manager and took over England in 2016, with the team in shambles. Once again, Southgate tried to build something from within and reached the final at the UEFA EURO 2020, only for England to concede another penalty loss against Italy, on “Wembley” no less.
It was just apt that one of Southgate’s most important games as a manager in his career, the Qatar 2022 quarter-final game against France was also decided by a penalty. Another missed one, this time by Harry Kane, the team’s captain, who converted another spot kick in the second half against France.
But when Kane delivered the ball too high and too powerful, Southgate knew that the chances to come back were almost zero. Once again, England paid the price of a missed penalty, like they did when he was a player, 26 years ago, and left the tournament way too early for their liking.
And the rumour mill started just as the final whistle was blown for England at Qatar 2022. Will Southgate be the sacrificial lamb once again?
“I hope he stays. Obviously, I don’t know. There’s a lot of talk around that. He’s been brilliant for us. There’s a lot of criticism that’s not deserved. He’s taken us so, so far, further than what people can expect,” said England’s midfielder, Declan Rice, who has thrived under Southgate’s guidance in the past years, becoming a key cog in the team and one of the top central midfielders in the world.
Rice was seconded by the Chief Executive of the England Football Association, Mark Bullingham, who released a statement the day after the loss against France, praising Southgate and his staff for the way they prepared the team, suggesting the future held plenty for this England team.
“We are incredibly proud of Gareth, the players, the coaches and the support team and appreciate all the hard work they put in,” Bullingham said.
Yet is Southgate convinced himself to stay? He has been doing this for six years, constantly improving the side, bringing in new players and shuffling the deck time and time again.
Could he really do more with this side?
One could say so, especially for the 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-final against Croatia, when England looked to be on the front foot, only to see their opponents come from behind and deliver a fatal blow.
At the UEFA EURO 2020, England captured the hearts and minds of a whole country, but fell short at the last hurdle, in the final against Italy. They say third time’s charm, but for this England team, Qatar 2022 was not to be, against a strong France side, in a close-call battle, which eventually went to “Les Bleus”.
“I think whenever I’ve finished these tournaments I’ve needed time to make correct decisions because emotionally you go through so many different feelings and the energy that it takes through these tournaments is enormous,” Southgate said.
“I want to make the right decision, whenever that is, for the team, for England, for the FA, and I’ve got to be sure whatever the decision I take is the right one. I think it’s right to take a bit of time to do that because I know in the past how my feelings have fluctuated in the immediate aftermath of tournaments,” added the England manager.
Six years is a lot in international football, but Southgate has assembled the best England squad in half a century and the players do love him and have never created problems. The atmosphere in the squad looked top notch for the first time in decades.
Yet why is this happening?
Southgate has also assembled a great staff, with a lot of attention to detail, everything being laid out and opponents watched countless times to counter their strengths. Penalties have also been analysed and an analytical approach was found to see how they could be improved.
“We have always wanted to develop a group that can sustain the types of tournaments that we have had. We are continuing to do that. It is more the decisions around it. To go again takes a lot of energy. You have got to make sure you are ready for that. Tonight there is too much in my head to think logically. We wanted to win. Tonight we have fallen short,” added the England manager.
With a contract running to December 2024, Southgate has the backing of everybody, even the England media and fans, who are picky, to say the least. The choice will be his, the decision will be his and his alone.
Whether he will follow up on the last six years, there is still to be seen. What is clear is that Gareth Southgate created a machine that is sure to last for the future.