I have a picture of a group of young footballers, resplendent in slightly baggy Crystal Palace club suits, smiling for the cameras just before they leave for a youth team trip to Portugal.
There are a few familiar faces: Simon Rodger, who went on to play almost 300 games for Palace, is in the middle row with the shock of blond hair; Chris Powell, who played for England and is now managing Southend, is in the middle; and, on the front row, sitting next to me, is Gareth Southgate.
You can tell a lot about Gareth from that picture. He seems to be sitting up a little straighter than most of the lads, his legs a little further apart, his tie a little neater – it’s the pose of a young man who is confident, and who feels like he belongs. Slap a waistcoat on him, and it’s not a million miles away from the man who has led England with such distinction in Russia, and who stands on the brink of something truly historic.
I tweeted that team picture on Sunday, although I didn’t mention that the trip was actually something of a sweetener for the lads.
Before we went there, we were off to the army base at Catterick for a boot camp – something Palace did before the start of every season.
Even by the standards of the early 1990s – when health and safety regulation were, shall we say, a little more lax – it was pretty brutal. Every day we would be up by 6am and out the door for a three-mile run. Then, after breakfast, we would all hit the obstacle course and be drilled by some very no-nonsense army guys.
Ten days up there was no place for the fainthearted, and it made me smile when – a year ago – pictures emerged of Gareth taking England away to the Royal Marines Commando training camp in Devon. Seeing Gareth being dunked under the water by a sergeant in a beret brought back some memories of Catterick, and I’m sure it did for him, too.
I like to think that the tough schooling Gareth received at Palace helped prepare him for his career. The club was a very different place back then: we trained at Mitcham, on Chelsea’s old pitches, and to say it was basic would be generous. We operated on a skeleton staff of the manager, Steve Coppell, the first team coach, Ian Evans, and myself, who took the reserves and youth team.
As for specialists like goalkeeping coaches, defensive coaches, psychologists or nutritionists – forget it. It was a school of hard knocks where players had to do a lot of thinking for themselves.
And while it was very much of its era, I suspect Gareth’s managerial approach was shaped by what he experienced on those Mitcham pitches – the ability to take responsibility and make decisions. If you didn’t, nobody else was going to step in and help you.
People have the image of Gareth being Mr Nice Guy – well-spoken, articulate, wouldn’t hurt a fly. That’s not the whole truth. There’s a hard edge to him – even a coldness, sometimes. He’s not the kind of guy who will greet you with a cuddle, and he likes to be clinical about things when he needs to be – just think about he left out Wayne Rooney shortly after getting the England job.
But he’s always had it in him. Back at Palace, he would have no issue in confronting a member of the coaching team if he felt he had made a bad call. I remember once playing him on the right side of midfield for a game against Luton which he felt – strongly – was a bad call, and something which didn’t make best use of his abilities. In the end he set up two goals so I felt vindicated, but that didn’t stop Gareth airing his views on the matter.
He also demands exacting standards from others. In 1995, we were playing Southampton down at the Dell, and lost 3-1. John Salako, our winger, hadn’t performed well and when we got back into the dressing room, Gareth just went for John – if Chris Coleman hadn’t pulled him off, who knows how it would have ended up. It wasn’t unusual for confrontations to take place in the dressing room in those days, but it’s proof that, behind the waistcoat, there’s a core of steel.
Various incidents in Gareth’s life have helped forge that. He was released by Southampton as a kid, which I know cut deep – I wonder whether his reaction to John that day at the Dell may have been part of him needing to prove a point to the club that had let him go. He also had to wait a long time for a senior start at Palace – I think he played over 100 reserve games before getting his chance – and then he was twice relegated with us, once on 49 points and another time on 45, which were painful.
Missing the penalty for England at Euro ‘96 was clearly a scar but I actually think almost as significant was his sacking at Middlesbrough in 2009. I was working with him at Boro at the time, and it was handled in a very peculiar way: we had just beaten Derby 2-0 to go a point off the top of the Championship when Gareth was fired. Gordon Strachan had apparently been lined up to replace him a couple of weeks earlier, which I still don’t understand and I know Gareth felt the same. He would never go about his business like that and he couldn’t get his head around what had happened. It took him a long time to process it.
I had concerns for Gareth when he was given the England job – not so much for him, but for the manner in which the FA had done it. It all seemed like a bit of a quick fix and that ‘good old Gareth’ would come in and not cause a fuss. But Gareth doesn’t work like that – he wants things done his way, and he can be quite obstinate when he wants to be. In the end he managed to negotiate a deal that he was happy with and that made all the difference.
He has done the job in a different way to the likes of Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello, who almost treated it as a part-time role. Gareth is in the office in Burton every day, preparing, planning and immersing himself in every aspect of the set-up, including the youth teams. That’s what sets him apart – he treats England as a club team, and wants to build that club ethic.
I’m in touch with him most days. I was at the cricket at Lord’s last wek and heard all the crowd singing his name and that football was coming home – at Lord’s! – so I told him about it. He just laughed and said he would rather not know – he feels quite uncomfortable with all the adulation. He actually said to me that he prefers it when there’s a bit more aggression and edge to his work. But that’s Gareth – always surprising you, and always impressing you.