It often seems like there’s no place quite like Great Britain when it comes to debating and regularly having to choose between one option or another. Ranging from the much more serious yes/no and in/out votes in recent times to querying at length whether a Jaffa Cake is a biscuit, a Mini Cheddar a crisp or indeed whether the chocolate or the plain side should be considered the top of a Chocolate Digestive biscuit – where there’s room for debate you can bet your last five pound note on there being an extended conversation whenever two contrasting options are presented. Perhaps the foodstuff that best typifies a very British division of opinions is that of marmite, widely regarded for either being extremely loved and hate by different second of the country’s population. Indecision may be one thing but weighing up both options and making an informed decision in numerous walks of life from the trivial to much more serious matters most certainly another and this too has in benefits – none more so than in football.
Yet in extending a much wider Great British discussion of being both for and against to a much more specific context with regards to the past, present and future of the England national team, in the same way that marmite illustrates just how divided a country can be over something so trivial in the grand scheme of life itself, so to the recent managerial appointment of Gareth Southgate. As premature rumours began to circulate way before a ball had even been kicked under the dark clouds which soon followed the abrupt ending to Sam Allardyce’s spell as first team coach, England fans were incredibly divided over the slightest possibility that one day Southgate could be selected as England manager on a permanent basis. For every fan that questioned the former interim managers CV and managerial credentials following a torrid time as Middlesbrough manager and only marginally more successful spell as coach of the England Under 21’s shortly after, there were fans claiming his appointment was a masterstroke; the FA stumbling upon a previously untested approach and something that could yet prove a winning formula by appointing a manager from within as opposed to looking solely at a manager’s CV at club level.
After the political divide caused by Brexit shortly before England’s very own Groundhog Day in the shape of Roy Hodgson’s sides now infamous defeat at the hand of the surprise package from last summer’s European Championship Iceland, supporters of the national side were left disappointed, perplexed and even lost more so than divided at the way forward for the Three Lions. The appointment of Sam Allardyce sought to placate supporters grave unhappiness and appeared to do so initially but following the unsavoury circumstances which soon followed, the England national team looked even more devoid of ideas and a clear strategy for moving forward both on and off the pitch. And whilst there was little the Football Association could have done given that no matter who had been selected for the job would be taking it under much more difficult circumstances than both their predecessors had done in the past, Southgate even now continues to divide opinion. To many perhaps the best of a bad bunch, to others an uninspiring choice with the potential to set England back even further given his track record and his fairly light CV on paper.
What will happen therefore remains to be seen and given that the proof is in the pudding – that being Southgate’s sides’ success in major tournaments more so than early qualifying rounds, only time will tell. For the Southgate sceptics, England’s narrow 2-0 victory over Lithuania illustrates the exact lack of progress the national side will endure for some years to come. Although England lived up to expectation by in the end comfortably their lower group rivals, those against Southgate were left hoping for much more – whether that be in terms of goals, a fresh tactical approach, more expensive style of play or simply a more comprehensive and larger result over a team firmly in England’s shadow.
On the flip side, for those willing to give the former defender a chance in the England hot seat, a win’s a win and whether it be a two or ten goal victory, it’s a case of job done when it matters most ahead of Russia 2018. Similarly whilst many look at England’s impressive display during what in time will often be remembered as Lukas Podolski’s testimonial, the Southgate out brigade will point to the defeat, to England conceding and not even scoring, to the fact that even under Hodgson England were able to beat Löw’s side or simply to the weakness of the opposition in a much changed, experimental Germany side. Conversely England fans with their glass half full will focus on England’s own squad rotation, on the narrowness of an eventual defeat and to the fact that there were many positives that ultimately bode well for the future of a redeveloping national team, in spite of the fact the game was played solely as a friendly.
Southgate however can neither do right nor wrong knowing that his every move will be scrutinised after recent disappointments both on and off the pitch. Yet in less than half a year in full-time, permanent charge of the England national side, what can we deduce from Gareth’s early decision making and the foundations of an England 2.0? Although you may well think not a great deal given Southgate has had little to no experience coming up against anyone but Germany or Spain in friendly international matches during his time as manager, his early tenure as England boss is however quite telling of what England fans should expect for the months and years he sits in the coveted England manager’s chair.
First and foremost, in complete contrast to the placid, friendly and clean cut image that often gets attributed to who many have previously described as an underwhelming, uninspiring Gareth Southgate, his bold decisions to call up Jermain Defoe at the age of 34 and to list Joe Hart as captain for England’s recent World Cup qualifier suggest he is far from the timid character many thought he might have been. Albeit forced into Defoe’s inclusion because of injuries to Danny Welbeck Harry Kane and Andy Carroll, Southgate’s decision appears to be largely based on current form – something long overlooked under Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson. Likewise Hart’s appointment as team captain was well calculated and managed – more than simply pointing to the biggest club star in the squad list and naming them captain. Both in the grand scheme of things may seem minimal but who knows in the long run, by trusting in current form as opposed to a player warranting an England squad place because of their last exploits in an England shirt, Southgate may well be displaying the same guts and determination as England manager as he did to step up and take a penalty during Euro 96.
As is often said about his managerial counterparts in reference to the likes of Guardiola, Mourinho and Ancelotti, it can take a big manager to big decisions and Southgate has started his England tenure by showing glimpses that he can do just that. Calling up James Ward-Prowse and Michael Keane for the first time were brave choices but most certainly well deserved for both individuals, as was Southgate’s decision to play with three at the back in both recent games to highlight his willingness for tactical innovation and changes from the past, as and where necessary. As he juggles the demands of balancing youth and experience, building for the future or focusing on winning the tournament(s) at hand by relying on those currently at the peak of their powers, he too may well end up upsetting England stars on the way.
Can Ross Barkley wait forever to at long obtain an England starting position? Will there be another look in for veteran Wayne Rooney after his recent injury lay off and subsequent omission from the team? Once again nobody quite knows but all signs that if a big decision needs making, to everybody’s surprise Southgate won’t be one to shy away from it.
Early victories over Malta and Lithuania and of course not forgetting an extremely comfortable 3-0 victory over fellow home nation Scotland do certainly not only strengthen England’s chances of automatic qualification to next years World Cup but perhaps more importantly from a developmental point of view provide a platform for England’s supporters, manager and the English FA to come closer together than ever before – much needed now more than ever especially with regards to recent events both on and off the pitch. Yet little aside than a degree of experimentation with younger players and a mere taste of what the future could hold for the national side has set pulses racing among the Three Lions.
Of course it’s still early days and reinventing an underperforming England doesn’t happen overnight but as Southgate’s blueprint becomes clearer throughout the rest of 2017, only then will we truly have an idea of whether his haters were right to hate or alternatively whether calls for calm, patience and for Southgate to be afforded time end up justified. For now, here’s hoping Southgate is only laying the foundations for a much bigger, brighter and much more successful future on the international stage. With renewed efforts to bring in young English talent into the first team with one eye on the many now promising young players becoming the stars of 2018 and beyond, his daring yet debatable Defoe decision highlights that he respects the need to mix both youth and experience.
If Southgate maintains such a realistic approach to tournament football and picks a diverse range of players both young and old based on current form more so than potential or simply because of their surname, Southgate could well be onto something often overlooked by his predecessors. Self confidence and motivation meanwhile are key but keeping the dressing room on his side with a team of staff capable of instilling a much needed discipline and hard working attitude away from the pitch alongside a style of play that is not only current and attractive on the eye but more importantly one that firmly suits the team’s style of play, England will hope to rewrite the failures of the past ten, twenty even fifty years with their own fairytale just like Leicester City.
Failing that, there’s always England increasing their poor run in tournament football after one victory in their last seven games in tournament football across the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship. Of course this would allow for an ever present new manager bounce in modern football, a consequent false sense of optimism and repeated belief that what has seemingly been a young side for the last two decades, has at last come of age under the new man at the helm – it’s not like we’ve been there before.