Sometime back in the middle of the last century when England won the World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsey was asked how he would celebrate the achievement. With a proper cup of tea, he said curtly.
If the FA do the sensible thing and appoint Gareth Southgate as the latest manager of the national team, it’s not hard to imagine him quietly celebrating a with a nice cup of tea, one with leaves and a tea strainer of course. And perhaps a slice of pizza on a china plate. Gareth has that same quintessential Englishness as Sir Alf had.
If the FA was a person Gareth would be the son they would hope to have. Good in a blazer and hard to imagine twerking in a night club let alone puffing a shisha pipe on a lads’ holiday. In my time at Sunderland there were lots of nights out that I reluctantly took part in for the sake of being sociable and often on those long evenings we would meet the Middlesborough players from down the road. They had a lot of larger than life characters there. Thing is I can’t ever remember running into Gareth on any of those occasions.
I played against him often and he was always a clean, determined player and something of a leader but never frightening. He was argumentative and he would point things out to referees with the certainty of a vicar gently chastising one of his parishioners.
He’d argue with the opposition too but could dispatch most of us without ever using any of the choice language we needed when making our point.
He is decent and earnest and probably immune from any of the temptations that undercover reporters might offer him at secretly filmed meetings. I can’t imagine the paparazzi having the stamina to hang around long enough to catch Gareth running a red light if he was in a hurry.
On Wednesday night at Wembley he wore a poppy on the lapel of his blue suit and he wore another poppy on the armband he had on over the suit sleeve. If he thought it was the right thing to do he’d have dressed up as a poppy.
And if Jane Austen had written about football she might have invented a solid, decent man like Gareth Southgate as the quiet suitor. But football isn’t like Pride and Prejudice. The FA sometimes reminds me more of the seventies sitcom Are You Being Served. The set up was a big outdated department store run by two fusty old men, the Grace Brothers. In those terms Gareth will be a manager who has worked on all floors at Grace Brothers.
He has a copybook with no blots on its pages. The most memorable elements of his career were that pizza ad and annoying Roy Keane. Who hasn’t done one or the other of those things?
I say all this about Gareth not because I know that he is a man who has described himself as ‘a bit boring’ but because there is more to him than the bland image suggests. And I know that in football it took some strength of character for him to continue to just being himself.
And at this time Gareth Southgate and his character might just be exactly what the FA needs. They’ve run into the arms of too many twinkly eyed rogueish types over the years ending up disappointed with the results and embarrassed by some of the tabloid headlines.
Just because Gareth Southgate is available, is English and is quiet doesn’t mean that the FA shouldn’t make the commitment to him that they have made in the past to more flashy types.
But if they feel they are just “settling” for decent old Gareth Southgate then it won’t work out.
What he can bring to the England job apart from his solid nature is a knowledge of the English game and what English players are comfortable with doing. Starting with what we saw at the Euros last summer and going back almost to the days of black and white television England have had managers who try to prove themselves by getting players to perform in alien systems and alien positions when they put on an international jersey. A few of the managers who have come in have had massive reputations and picked English teams which might impress their peers but not get results. A few more have tried things that they themselves didn’t seem to fully understand and which confused the players.
I think Gareth Southgate is comfortable with who he is and might surprise people by cutting his cloth to suit his means. That starts in his dealings with the FA. Many years ago when Alf Ramsey took over the England job from Walter Winterbottom the first thing he demanded was that the system of having a committee to select the players be abandoned. I’m sure that was a shock to the Grace Brothers. Gareth needs to be just as firm from the start. Just because he has worked in the shop for sometime as a development officer and as Under 21 coach shouldn’t make the FA feel that he is any kind of soft touch.
Ramsey had to defy the FA to continue fielding Nobby Stiles during the 1966 World Cup and it was only in the middle of that tournament that he finally settled on his ‘wingless wonders’ system with Stiles as the scary holding midfielder. He knew his players and what they did on a weekly basis and when it came to big decision like bringing in Nobby Stiles or dropping Jimmy Greaves he seemed to be immune to what the media said.
Gareth will be working in a world where the media is a hundred times louder and where social media has the potential to bring down any manager. The FA aren’t the strongest when faced with these things. In the end when the media turned on Ramsey so too did the FA. The trend has continued.
It’s been a year of strange outcomes in bigger events and if Gareth reaches the England managers office he will have come a strange and unlikely route. But English players at this stage are like kids who get fostered out on a regular basis. They’ve listened to men in Armani suits who wanted to be bigger stars than the players and they’ve listened to larger than life characters with a whiff of gun smoke coming from them. Who knows, a bit of quiet and some security may be just the thing.
England look comfortable at the top of Group F and it will be a big surprise if they don’t stay there and go to Russia in 2018 weighed down as usual by the silly mix of fatalism and unrealistic expectation that English teams have to carry.
Getting through those long tournaments is about feeling comfortable with each other and with what you are doing, it’s about having a leader who doesn’t bend with every puff of wind coming from the media. It’s all about spirit. If you have a leader who has the humility to let the players propel themselves you have won half the battle.
Any time I played against Gareth Southgate he was either captain of the other team of behaving like he was. He did what he needed to do. He’s one of those quiet men who, without making a fuss about it, is master of his own fate.
If his time has now come I know that’s what he will remain.
Ted’s Nightclub, Harry Ramsden’s and a Different Age.
I have to admit I’m generally an optimist but I hadn’t got this Irish team down for ten points out of twelve at this stage of the qualifying process. I thought we’d have our usual skin of the teeth end to the campaign. Instead we look comfortable going into the break and if we win all our home games now we will be in Russia.
After the game on Saturday and the ending of the long history of the hoodoo with Austria, inevitably some memories came back from 1995 and the beginning of the end of our time with Big Jack.
It was early summer, the long English season was over. We had gone to Vaduz in Liechtenstein and had an embarrassing draw the week before. We came back to Ireland and headed to Limerick for the week to get ready to redeem ourselves against Austria in Lansdowne Road the next week.
Jack trusted us so much that he spent the week at another engagement. We were old enough in theory to be left by ourselves for a week but in practice, when the cat was away the mice went out to play.
What I’m saying is the mice played for a week in Ted’s Night Club in Limerick. We did long warm ups for Ted’s each evening in Henry Cecil’s bar. We generally did a half hearted training session the next morning.
On the morning before the game a bus turned up to bring us to Dublin. It was like an exhibit from a Victorian transport museum. This was 1995 and we hadn’t laid down all those nice motorways we have now. We chugged slowly towards Dublin.
The highlight of the journey is well known but before we get to that what is less generally remembered is the stop off in Ballyfermot Community Centre. Jack had vaguely promised a local fund raiser that we would turn up for some sort of opening. When our bus came belching and farting into the car park and we got out the locals were as surprised to see us and we were surprised to be there.
Still when word got around that we were there a friendly crowd assembled. I remember us going out again on the bus and all these young fellas riding bareback on piebalds galloping along beside the bus waving at us as we headed toward the Bluebell Road. They were trying to beat the bus and for quite a while they succeeded.
Eventually we got to Harry Ramsden’s on the Long Mile Road. Each player got given a fish as big as a wellington boot and a mountain of chips. And then a brochure got handed around telling every player that if they ate it all they’d get a free dessert and a certificate. Gary Kelly hadn’t won a medal in his career but he set about the Harry Ramsden challenge with gusto. We had a presentation for him when he won and we all stood around him clapping, fat as fools but with work still to do.
We didn’t head to the hotel after the fish and chips we had to go straight to Lansdowne Road to train on the pitch. We did the warm up stretches belting and farting like the old bus that had brought us there.
It was dusk when we were finished, fully dark when we got to the hotel having left Limerick in the morning. We didn’t even have the usual card school, we just all headed off to bed, knackered.
The next day we were back on an even keel and got serious. I got taken off at around the hour mark and Tony Cascarino came on for me. We often passed each other coming on and off the pitch but I remember being especially glad to get the chance to greet Cas that day. I was shattered after an hour.
So it turned out was everybody else. ay Houghton did put us one nil up not long after I had come off but then with twenty minutes left we collapsed. The Austrians put three past us. Toni Polster, I think, got two of them.
When the old team meets up now we don’t really talk about that week. Of all the old stories the Limerick trip and our guilt is best forgotten. We’d done those things before, that was part of the times and part of what we were as a team but we’d never done them as much as we did that week in Limerick.
Time caught up on us and on Jack. We got kicked in the backside. We eventually reached a play-off against Holland that we lost in Anfield but I think in six games before the end of Jack’s reign newly founded Latvia were the only team we beat. All good things come to an end.
I watched James McClean scoring on Saturday and it made me smile. He epitomises what is best about this new team. They have the spirit and guts that went missing in the Trapattoni years. They have that bit of defiance.
They’ll never know the inside of Ted’s Nightclub or the thrill of winning a big competition like the Harry Ramsden Challenge, but that was then and this is now. Priorities change and Russia beckons!