Gareth Southgate was announced as the new manager of the England national football team on Wednesday. He had been managing the team on temporary basis for 63 days, four short of the entire tenure of predecessor Sam Allardyce. And in this short time, he has displayed everything that Allardyce was not. Big Sam was a bulldog, a clownish, blustering figure who got drunk with undercover reporters, mocked outgoing boss Roy Hodgson’s speech impairment, and got the names of his own players wrong.
Southgate will do no such thing. He is so polite that he will probably hold press conferences in rooms with framed portraits of all his predecessors, and will also make copious notes about his players just so he doesn’t miss anybody out. He is someone who will never let the image of the English football team or the English FA down. Unless this particularly dapper naked streaker makes an appearance.
On the touchline, however, it’s a different ball game altogether. Southgate is the most inexperienced England manager of all time. He is also the least successful candidate in the last 20 years to be given the top job. And, to nobody’s surprise, he is also paid the lowest in 16 years. It’s as if the England FA, battered and bruised by a series of hopeless candidates who either shamed the team in international tournaments or blabbered drunkenly like a sailor on vacation, finally decided to go with the one person who will do absolutely no wrong; the guy Martin Prince from Simpsons would have grown up to become.
The only thing more surprising than Southgate’s choice is the fact that there were literally no rivals for the post. The FA spoke of interviewing him a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t announce who else was in the reckoning. Surely, if they were taking the trouble of holding an interview process, they must have had more than one name. So who were these guys, unlucky enough to lose out to a man whose only experience of top flight English football ended in relegation?
And more importantly, how did it all come to this? This, the England national football team. They are the Galacticos of international football, the prima donnas of sport. It’s as if the most powerful country in the world is to name a clownish buffoon as its president. Did they have no better alternatives?
At one point, even names such as Arsene Wenger were making the rounds. But while the Arsenal boss was always going to be an unlikely choice, it indicated several heavy duty CVs the FA must have had on its consideration table. A more realistic option was Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, who has impressed everybody with his flowing football and a string of impressive results with the Cherries. But still in his maiden season in the top division, even his staunchest supporters would admit Howe’s time isn’t there yet.
Gary Neville might have been the obvious replacement, but his close association with Roy Hodgson at the disaster that was Euro 2016 and a nightmarish reign at Spanish side Valencia, meant his corner wasn’t overflowing with support. Alan Pardew would have made for an excellent choice last year, having steered Crystal Palace to great heights, but the new season has been a series of disappointments for the Englishman and he now faces the very real fear of being sacked by Palace too.
And that is that. A very barren cupboard has been ransacked; a very shallow barrel’s bottom has been scraped; the list is over, almost as soon as it started. The million pressures of the job, the intense media scrutiny and the incredible weight of expectations mean that the England manager’s job is a poisoned chalice, one that everybody praises but nobody is quite ready to sip from. It might be highly cited, revered and recognised, but hardly coveted.
Every international tournament has England enter as one of the form teams, having stormed through the qualification rounds. But bogged down by the demands of big tournament football, and comprising a squad that’s just participated in a gruelling Premier League season, they inevitably implode. Every manager knows this. And that’s a very important factor in why most refuse to take it up.
At a time when English club football is making giant leaps forward — five of the biggest football managers in the world are all plying their trade in the Premier League — it’s an unfortunate aside that the national team cannot find a half-way decent manager with even basic level credentials. Even a Newcastle United — languishing in Championship football — can afford to retain the services of Champions League winner Rafael Benitez. But the national team was still picked with a shortlist comprising one candidate.
It wasn’t always the case. Allardyce had over two decades of managerial experience; Roy Hodgson had even more than that. Before him, Fabio Capello came to Wembley having managed Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid. Southgate, meanwhile, has the unenviable task of gathering his fractured group of fragile egos and worse hamstrings together, and drive them towards the World Cup in less than two years’ time. And he’d better do it well, for they haven’t even begun discussing a possible successor yet.