There’s always been something different about Gareth Southgate. He doesn’t come across as your typical footballer. A writer of poetry as opposed to making up words on Twitter, the former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender is very different to the stereotypical portrayal of a football player.
Anyone who has sat through ITV’s football coverage will have noticed his well-considered, intelligent and articulated views on the game. It’s no wonder the FA have brought him in to lead England into a new footballing era.
In January 2011, Southgate, after a spell in the professional wilderness following his separation from Middlesbrough, was hired as the FA’s Head of Elite Development, alongside Sir Trevor Brooking.
What does this role consist of, I hear you cry? We’ll let the man himself tell you about it.
“After the World Cup in South Africa, there was a review of the development in England, involving everyone from within the professional game. There were conferences on how we can improve grassroots development, coach education, and the experience of the junior national teams.
“From that, there was a report produced with 25 recommendations which became the youth development review. My appointment was to help deploy those recommendations. It’s things like altering formats of the game for our young kids. So instead of playing XI v XI when they’re ten years old, they will play nine against nine, allowing them more touches of the ball and the chance to enjoy the game more.”
Southgate, who was capped 57 times by his country, heads the initiative that believes the future of English football lies in developing better coaches in order to develop better players, with age specific coaches a requirement.
“Historically, people have been taking their UEFA A or UEFA B Licence and have got qualified, but while they have knowledge about teaching football teaching kids football is a different matter. It’s less about how we teach football, but how we create an environment for kids to play in.
“We’ve never had age specific coaching awards in the past, we’ve always had people who have done adult coaching taking it on. The sets of skills needed are completely different, like if you have a university teacher taking primary school kids, the mentality of the kids is different; their method of learning is different. There are very few other countries in the world that are doing that. It’s a revolutionary step for us that’s been very well received.
“These are the sort of things we’re trying to get in place, to get coaching recognised as a profession, as opposed to just having volunteers in charge.”
The former Boro boss also believes this is one of the main reasons England have fallen behind the likes of Germany and Holland in terms of international football over the years.
“If we look at the coach education programme in Holland and Germany, people take coaching very seriously. I don’t think as a country we’ve always viewed it in that way. When I got a job at a Premier League club, I wasn’t even qualified!
“That wouldn’t be allowed to happen now, under the new recommendations. In an ideal world, you should go through the qualifications first and then gain experience and work your way through. In Holland and Germany that would never be allowed. They take it as a serious profession.”
The National Football Centre in Burton is scheduled to open this year and the former England centre-back is certain it will benefit the national team for years to come.
“Our teams are too scattered currently. Our Under 17s and 19s could be training in two different parts of the country, never seeing each other, never feeling part of the England set-up. When we move to St George’s Park (Burton) you can have the under 17s on a pitch, the England senior team on a pitch, the England women’s team on another pitch, and all the players staying at the hotel, interacting, learning from each other.
“The LMA will be based there, the PFA will have an office there, so there will be a lot more interaction between people. Going on coaching courses is great, but you learn as much from having a chat over dinner, sharing ideas with people as you will from the actual lessons being taught. That interaction is ideal.”
The restriction by clubs of taking young players to international junior tournaments is something that grates with Southgate, who believes failure to allow them to participate in these tournaments, actually stunts their development.
“Last season, going into the Under 20s World Cup, we had 40 players pull out and couldn’t get the release of the best players.
“Holland and Germany always send their best teams, at Under 17, Under 19, whatever level. Spain have outstanding world class players, but Xavi, Torres, Fabregas all played junior tournaments, while Lionel Messi went to play at the Olympics (for Argentina).
“Until we take those sorts of things more seriously, our players are missing out on a valuable experience.”
That experience, coupled with more realistic expectations of the national team, should allow England to build a platform which will help in the challenge for honours again – making players psychologically prepared for the pressures of playing for England.
Southgate famously missed a penalty for England against Germany at Wembley in the semi-finals of Euro 96, and he believes that mental fortitude is key to cutting it at international level.
“The reality is that if you want to represent England, you’ve got to be able to handle that (the pressure). Being able to handle that is almost more relevant than if you can play at that level. Handling everything that surrounds international football is as difficult as answering the questions on the field, so you’ve got to be a strong character.
“If you don’t like that (the pressure) and you don’t want to put yourself in that situation, then don’t do it because it is intense; it is pressure for you, for your family, and there’s no let up on the focus. But if you want to achieve things in life, then you’ve got to put yourself under pressure. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to accept that when it does go wrong, then you’re going to get criticised.
“I missed my penalty at Euro 96 and it’s something I have to live with everyday of my life. People will always mention it, sometimes in a nice way, sometimes in an abusive way, especially with the wide use of Twitter nowadays. You’ve just got to be strong enough to deal with it.
“It’s disheartening, but if you want to play at the highest level, you’ve got to put yourself into those situations. If they go well, you’re the hero, but if they don’t you’ve got to live with the consequences.”
While Southgate is unsure as to how far England can go at this summer’s European Championships – “getting to a semi-final would represent progress” - it seems that under his supervision and the guidlines he’s drawn the future looks bright for English football.
If these guidelines are followed and implemented as planned the Three Lions could be roaring again, and the promised land of international success may not be too far away.
Gareth Southgate was speaking at the launch of the Carlsberg Pub Cup, a nationwide five-a-side competition for players of all standards. To register your team, visit www.carlsberg.co.uk/pubcup or read more here: Southgate launches Carlsberg Cup
Follow Sam Parker on Twitter @SmParker8.
Tags: Carlsberg, England, Euro 2012, Gareth Southgate, National Football Centre