The day I meet Gareth Southgate in late April, the bookies have got Wayne Rooney at 100-1 to be the next England captain. Ahead of him are only seven other players, and of those only two are likely to be in the starting XI on 18 June when England face Tunisia in their opening World Cup game. Given England’s record goal scorer announced his retirement from international football last year and is very much in the twilight of his playing career, that says a lot about England’s current leadership problem.
‘We don’t have a squad of players who are experienced leaders,’ admits Southgate, but without any sense of drama. ‘That leaves us light in that area, but it’s exciting, because we can watch people grow and help them to develop.’
Southgate, who was recently unveiled as a Hublot friend of the brand, is well positioned to do that. As a player, he was captain of every club he played for, and in 2006 he migrated from pitch to technical area overnight, becoming manager of Middlesbrough, then a Premier League side, aged just 35. ‘My journey as a manager was ridiculous, really,’ he recalls. ‘I had zero experience coaching or managing. I’d do lots of things differently.’
‘If we haven’t had failures along the way, then we haven’t been brave enough with the decision-making’
Now 47, he looks and sounds considerably more experienced than the man who, despite not having the qualifications required to manage a top-flight club, guided Boro to 12th and 13th in the table in his first years in charge. ‘Anybody in a leadership position is making 10, 20, 30 decisions a day,’ he says. ‘Is it realistic to expect you to get them all right? As a younger leader, you feel you have to. As you gain experience, you realise you’ve got to assimilate the information and make the best possible decision with what you know and feel. The reality is, if we haven’t had failures along the way, then we probably haven’t been brave enough with some of the decision-making.’
Southgate’s Middlesbrough were relegated at the end of the 2008/09 season and he was sacked a few months into the next campaign with his team challenging for promotion back to the Premier League. Budget cuts meant he had to lay off staff, decisions he knew ‘affected people’s lives’. Ruefully, he remembers those as ‘the most difficult’ calls he’s had to make and see through.
In 2013, he was appointed England U21 manager, winning 27 of his 33 matches in charge and doing enough for the FA to appoint him manager of the senior side in Autumn 2016, a few months after England’s disastrous defeat to Iceland at that year’s European Championships. He guided England through World Cup qualification undefeated, and at the time of writing has lost only two of his 16 games as manager, friendlies away to Germany and France.
In post-match interviews and in press conferences, he comes across as calm and reasonable, not one to fly off the handle. Does that translate onto the training pitch, into the dressing room? ‘The days are gone where the leader stood at the front and shouted and people reacted in a positive way,’ he says. ‘The younger generation want to know why you’re going in a certain direction. Years ago, when I was a young player, you jumped on board and you did it. Now people want to know: what’s the rationale? In leadership, you’ve constantly got to evolve with the times.’
While he’s aware his side lacks experienced leaders who wear the armband at their clubs or who have trophy rooms in their gilded mansions (unlike Rooney), he sees an opportunity to mould a team in his image. He’s talked of a collective approach, rotating the captaincy in a bid to build leadership experience. ‘It’s probably helpful for the group to have a focal point,’ he says of his World Cup squad, expected to be announced before the 4 June deadline, unwilling to be drawn on who will lead England in Russia. ‘But we’ve got to spread the load. Everybody’s got to take responsibility.’
‘We’ve got to spread the load. Everybody’s got to take responsibility’
Previous England managers, Fabio Capello in particular, were criticised by players for running too tight a ship, creating camps where the squad felt monitored to the point of claustrophobia. Southgate intends his World Cup camp to be a more relaxed affair. He cites Terry Venables, who he played under during England’s glorious semi-final run at Euro 96, as his biggest influence. ‘He was brilliant with people,’ Southgate remembers. ‘He had a very relaxed way about him, which at an international level is even more important because the intensity of it is different to the Premier League. After the Champions League Final, we’ll be the only story in town.’
The thinking behind his leadership style, says Southgate, is to free England up to go and express themselves. For years, players have seemed inhibited on the pitch, too concerned about becoming the fall guy when the team fails. ‘There’s been a tendency of trying not to make mistakes, rather than being yourself and going for it,’ he says. His message to his players? ‘You might only get one or two opportunities on the world stage, so let’s see how good you might be.’
Southgate seems comfortable with his style of leadership, and that come what may, he’ll live with the outcome. ‘I’m not worried about the consequences of my mistakes,’ he says. ‘I’ve made enough of them. When we took the job, my assistant Steve Holland and I said, “We’ve got to enjoy this,” because otherwise, what’s the point?’
One of his greatest strengths is how likeable he is. He’s open to questions and thoughtful in reply, and it’s not hard to imagine him reasoning you gently into submission if you disagree with him, arm around your shoulder. As he leaves, he’s keen to thank everyone on the shoot. And then he turns to me. ‘I’ve really enjoyed thinking through some of the scenarios you posed,’ he says. ‘It’s got me thinking how and why I make decisions.’
Glad to be of service, Gareth. Now go and win the bloody thing.
Gareth Southgate was shot exclusively for The Jackal at the Grosvenor House Hotel, 23 April 2018, by Sebastian Nevols. Gareth wears the Hublot Classic Fusion Black Magic, £7,800, hublot.com