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Is Southgate still ‘The One’?

Two summers ago, Atomic Kitten’s 2000 hit, ‘Whole Again’ reached the Top 5 in the UK’s biggest charts. The song was of course renamed to ‘Southgate You’re the One’ and the man in the England dugout was one of the most revered men in the country.

After decades of international mediocrity, Southgate’s England reinvigorated the nation during the 2018 World Cup. Despite the bitter disappointment of being knocked out by Croatia, the country was firmly behind the man in the waistcoat.

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Southgate celebrates as England defy the odds to reach the 2018 World Cup semi-finals

Five years and two tournaments later, Southgate’s popularity in England has seemingly reached its nadir. Not only are his tactical decisions and player selections scrutinised more than ever, but his moral character has now been called into question.

Whilst it is not uncommon for an England manager to go from hero to zero, Southgate’s fall in favour has been unique. Tonight, England will face the Italian team that beat them in the 2020 Euro’s final, a moment that might have marked the beginning of the end for Southgate.

Gareth, the Unifier

In the early days, Southgate and his England team felt different in so many ways. His own journey to becoming manager was unique. He wasn’t head-hunted from a club job – he had worked his way through the England coaching ranks, managing the U-21’s for three years before taking the hotseat.

His tactical style was cautious and uncomplicated but well suited to tournament football. The team felt different to previous World Cup squads, plagued less by individualism and more focused on the collective goal.

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England’s 2018 World Cup squad

A notable high point in Southgate’s tenure was his ‘Dear England’ letter penned in 2021, just before EURO 2020. It tactfully addressed some of the issues of racism and identity in the country and set a precedent for the England boss to not only be a football manager but also an agent of social change.

The Weight of Expectation

Defeat for England tasted different in 2021 than it did in 2018. Expectation had grown significantly since the Russia World Cup, and many couldn’t reconcile with losing the final to an Italian team that wouldn’t qualify for the subsequent World Cup.

The ‘Southgate Out’ movement had grown from a small cluster of contrarians and naysayers to a significant vocal minority. Exasperated with Southgate’s caution, many fans questioned whether the 2022 Qatar World Cup would be his last chance as England manager.

After falling short to eventual finalists France in the quarter-finals, it was reported that Southgate was “considering his future” . Ten months later, he is still the England manager, contracted until December 2024. It seems increasingly unlikely that he will be the man in the dugout come 2025.

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Southgate questioned in England press conference

Sticking to football

In the present day, enthusiasm for the English team and Southgate is seemingly at an all-time low since he took over. The perennial criticism of team selection and dull football remain, but the England boss has now had his stance on social issues challenged.

Southgate claimed that it “defied logic” when questioned over the England fans’ booing Jordan Henderson on Saturday. This failure to understand the unhappiness of the fans is directly at odds with the idea many had of the man behind the ‘Dear England’ letter, and the online backlash to his comments reflected that.

The manager who once inspired a “35% rise in demand” for his signature waistcoat now comes across as spiky, combative and stubborn. That different feeling has all but dissipated and Southgate feels more and more like just another England manager.

In his defence, football’s social landscape has changed dramatically since his ‘Dear England’ letter in 2021. The influence of oil states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia has further muddied the waters and have made Southgate’s role as a potential ‘agent of change’ all the more challenging.

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FIFA President Sepp Blatter and the Chairman of Qatar 2022 bid committee Sheik Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani

Championing social justice in the UK has proven a lot easier for both Southgate and Henderson than addressing the wider issue of Saudi Arabia or Qatar’s growing involvement in football.

Southgate speaking out would make for some awkward conversations with trusted lieutenants like Henderson, Kieran Trippier, and Callum Wilson, who all play for clubs associated with the Saudi Arabian state.

Southgate’s loyalty to his players and ability to articulate social issues used to be heralded as his strongest traits as a manager and person. Now his loyalty to certain players and inability to speak out could cost him his job.

All or nothing in 2024

Tonight’s fixture against Italy is important for a few reasons. A win would certify England’s place in Euro 2024 and a convincing performance would stave off the critics until the next international break.

Beating the team that triumphed at Wembley in 2021 would also be an important marker for Southgate and his squad.

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Italy lifting the trophy during Euro 2020 at Wembley

Unless England return from Germany on the 15th July 2024 as champions, Southgate’s days are seemingly numbered.

This summer ironically saw a play about Southgate named ‘Dear England’ debut in the West End, focusing on his positive transformation of the team and the national psyche.

Southgate’s almost tragic fall from grace would tell a story more reflective of the current sentiment.

Many will undoubtedly celebrate his inevitable exit, but many will feel a tinge of sadness when he goes. The same cannot be said for most England managers.




  • Ed Dowling

    Ed is an Editor at the Sports Gazette. A much-maligned Tottenham fan, he mainly talks and writes about football in England and abroad. He is also a Senior Reporter for Nigeria's biggest sports radio station, Brila FM.