Anyone doubting football’s ability to influence people beyond the narrow confines of sport needed only to count the waistcoats on the London Underground yesterday morning. The original inspiration, worn with such elegance by Gareth Southgate in Russia over the past month, now even appears destined to see out its days as an exhibit in the Museum of London.
Southgate-mania has come to transcend mere football and, for that, there is an explanation that also stretches far beyond having led England to their best World Cup performance so far this century. Changing perceptions of what matters in a leader has been a nice addition to transforming a nation’s relationship with their national football team.
People often ask football journalists what some manager or other is like. And they are conditioned to expect someone out of the ordinary. Noise, charisma, humour, iron discipline and that intangible thing that we call “an aura”. And yet here was the thing last night about watching Southgate up close.
For the vast majority of the match, you hardly knew that he was there. That’s right, until the seconds before extra-time had started, when he gathered his players for their final instructions, Southgate was among the least outwardly animated people in the whole of Moscow. Even then, he had preferred largely to calmly mingle between his players and issue individual instructions rather than engage in some great rallying cry.
Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic, by contrast, was perpetual motion on the touchline throughout the match. It must have been quite lonely. Even when England took their fifth minute lead, he could have been forgiven for wondering whether Southgate had turned up. Up leapt the England substitutes and most of the staff and onto the pitch they poured in ecstatic celebration. Southgate did not leave his dugout seat.
It was similar when John Stones almost scored England’s opening goal of the World Cup against Tunisia and Southgate simply turned to trusted assistant Steve Holland and said “oh, where’s Harry’ in apparent surprise that his striker had not finished the chance more quickly.
Just the choice of Holland as his assistant is instructive. Southgate was asked before the tournament why there would be no former England legend in the mould of Gary Neville alongside Roy Hodgson in 2014 and David Beckham with Fabio Capello in 2010. “Steve Holland is a legend,” he said.
Southgate again spent most of last night simply seated in the corner of the dugout and deep in conversation with Holland. He was up briefly after 41 minutes to have a quiet chat with the fourth official about a perceived injustice. Then again on 66 minutes to transmit a few short instructions to his players. After Croatia equalised and hit the post during a torrid second-half period, he was rather more regularly visible as he considered his substitutions but still not in any panicked or overbearing sense.
And yet you could never mistake this low profile with any lack of personality, passion or desire. If ever there was a football manager who has become an overnight hero after decades of diligent unseen work it is Southgate.
The journalist Ian Herbert wrote a recent biography of the former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley and, in ‘Quiet Genius’, he referred to the leadership research and theories of Susan Cain. Her big argument is that Western culture misunderstands and undervalues the traits and potential of more introverted people. And how we instead tend to reward, admire or misguidedly assume that outwardly certain and bullish are most capable. The opposite, she says, is often true. Why? Because of the power of someone who listens and so then learns, who analyses and is quite prepared to self-critically challenge themselves in the search for ongoing improvement.
Hard work is usually done with little fuss and, speaking to staff at the Football Association, it is interesting to hear how Southgate has embraced international management day-to-day at his office at the National Football Centre in Burton very differently to his predecessors. He does not so much manage a team as lead an entire organisation.
The alpha-male is of course a dominant feature of football dugouts but, like Paisley and Sir Alf Ramsey also, Southgate has demonstrated the value in another style and personality.
The crucial caveat of course is a willingness still to stand up and take difficult decisions. Anyone who really knows Southgate, who saw him survive in football dressing-rooms of the 1980s in which he was just a little different, never doubted this. Plenty of others, though, have been pleasantly surprised by his ruthless streak. Russia 2018 has ensured that Southgate’s place in the history of English football is already secure. Beyond that and, as well as the sartorial influence, there is an entire leadership style that is in itself challenging past norms.