Gareth Southgate - England's anteater (Frank Augstein - Pool/Getty Images)

June 16, 2023   6 mins

Shortly after he got the England job, somebody on Twitter (and, as far as I can tell, nobody remembers who) said that Gareth Southgate resembled “an anteater gradually realising it isn’t supposed to be able to talk”. It’s a description that, for all the reams of copy subsequently produced about him, has yet to be equalled. Indeed, that was part of the charm of his first World Cup in 2018, when England, with an almost hysterical recognition that none of the usual rules seemed to apply any more, reached the semi-final.

There was something touchingly awkward about Southgate. He seemed shy and decent, his fabled waistcoat a totem of a nobler age as he probed at the boundaries of his role, recognising that this wasn’t just about getting a result against Tunisia or working out a way not to be terrible at penalties — that being England manager meant he could, perhaps should, play a social role. 

By 2021, he had fully embraced this, writing an open letter in which he set out the “duty” of England players to “interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice”. Two years on, that letter has inspired James Graham’s play, Dear England, which launched at the National this week.

Football has a way of catching up with all managers. As Brian Clough’s great mentor Harry Storer observed, it is a game in which nobody ever says thank you. Successes are quickly forgotten; frustration the default mood. After leading England in three tournaments, there’s a background grumble of discontent around Southgate. He’s too defensive, too grey, too soft, pundits and fans complain; he needs to release the handbrake and let this unprecedented generation of attacking talent take wing. They must be unleashed. That he has overseen a level of achievement not enjoyed since the days of Alf Ramsey half a century ago, or that he has been in charge for 40% of all major knockout games ever won by England, is often ignored.

Southgate became England manager by mistake, which was greatly to his advantage. The England national team had been in a mess for a decade. Sven-Göran Eriksson had left after the Wag-fuelled hedonism and disappointment of the 2006 World Cup. Under Steve McClaren, England failed even to qualify for Euro 2008 — then the 2010 World Cup, under the Italian martinet Fabio Capello, was even worse than 2006. Roy Hodgson, with his accent from British gangster films of the Sixties, was a step back to traditional virtues. But nothing improved. The nadir came as they were eliminated from Euro 2016 by Iceland four days after the Brexit referendum. 

“Fuck off, Europe, we voted out,” chanted fans, as Europe and the quarter-finals went on quite happily without England. Hodgson was replaced by Sam Allardyce who lasted 67 days before the Football Association panicked and forced him to resign following a Telegraph sting that amounted to very little, but did, thanks to the lighting on the footage produced by their secret cameras, seem to depict him drinking a pint of wine. Continental sophisticate he was not; and he never made any secret of his pro-Brexit leanings. 

Enter Southgate, who was the Under-21 coach and whose main draw was the fact he was available. He seems neither to have sought nor particularly wanted the job; he was very much an accidental hero, a Richard Hannay figure plucked suddenly from the largely uneventful world of youth football into one of highest-profile roles in the country. He thrived. England have probably never gone into a World Cup with lower expectations than they did in Russia 2018. But Southgate created a likeable, engaging side. They had fun in a swimming pool with inflatable unicorns. They hammered Panama. They even won a penalty shoot-out. 

And through it all, Southgate seemed an admirably calm, unflappable presence. After the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia, he made a point of consoling both Colombia’s coach, José Pékerman, and Carlos Bacca, who had missed the decisive kick. There was an old-fashioned decency about him that stood in obvious contrast to the post-Brexit machinations in Westminster. To a certain constituency, there was something consoling in that: this was an appealing image of Englishness.

But it was not everyone’s image of Englishness. When, following a squad discussion (for Southgate’s leadership is, of course, consensual), England players took the knee before a pre-Euro 2020 friendly in Middlesbrough, they were booed. That was the context of Southgate’s open letter. During the pandemic, footballers (and their pay packets) also became an easy target for politicians seeking a scapegoat — Matt Hancock, unsurprisingly, foremost among them. 

Now, footballers’ wages may be obscene, but are they more obscene than, say, the pay of hedge-fund managers or the executives of utility companies? Why were they not urged to sacrifice more? Could it be because, for those critics and the audience they were appealing to, the social background of the person making the money is what really counts?

If anything, football generally demonstrated its social conscience during lockdown. It wasn’t just Marcus Rashford and his campaigns for free meals for schoolchildren during holidays; Jordan Henderson organised the Players Together campaign to arrange donations to the NHS, while countless others made donations to hospitals, food banks and local charities. A couple of decades ago, sports stars were essentially billboards: their off-pitch purpose was to wear their sponsors’ gear and keep quiet. Post-Colin Kaepernick, though, there has been an increasing willingness to speak out on political issues. Whether that is, as Southgate said, a “duty” or merely a right is debatable, but, particularly as football has become a theatre for Middle Eastern foreign policy, it seems absurd to expect players to “stick to football”.

What is notable now about Southgate’s letter, published a week after the booing at Middlesbrough (and two days after taking the knee at a subsequent game brought boos that were soon drowned out by applause), is how defensive it is. He emphasises his patriotism, filtered through the figure of his grandfather, who served in the Royal Marines in the Second World War. He talks about his love of the queen and pageantry, and describes England as “an incredible nation”. There is a very deliberate distancing of himself from the suspicion he might be a bit Remainery, a bit cosmopolitan, a bit liberal.

More significant is his focus on the “pride” that he insists all England players feel, which is ostensibly a rebuttal of the charge that modern players in their gilded bubbles don’t care for the national team, but seems also, in the context of the booing of support for Black Lives Matter, to hint at his multicultural, multiracial team as the avatar of a more diverse England. And this is one of the ironies of football: it still has huge issues with race, both in terms of abuse from the terraces and of representation in the dugout, in the boardroom and in the press-box. On the pitch, though, football is as diverse an industry as there is in England: obviously nothing is absolutely perfect but, by and large, teams are meritocracies in which the only question asked is how good you are. 

After attacking those who “choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin”, Southgate wrote that “it’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society”, which seemed an extremely optimistic take on how post-Brexit England may appear. The racist abuse suffered online by Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after they missed penalties in the shoot-out in the final perhaps came as a grim reminder of how far that ideal world is from the reality.

There was also a disappointing dose of reality in Qatar last year as England (and every other team) were timid in highlighting just how disgraceful it was that the World Cup was being held in a country so obviously in breach of Fifa statutes against discrimination on race, gender and sexuality, or that infrastructure had been built through scandalous labour practices. But perhaps that is understandable: a football team is primarily a football team; it’s not a vehicle to drive social change. Certainly, the players were not the villains in Doha.

But then football is itself a political act. Show me how you play, as the Uruguayan theorist Eduardo Galeano put it, and I will tell you who you are. Minor quibbles can be raised about Southgate as a manager, notably over his capacity to make in-game changes, but the most prevalent criticism is that he is too cautious. Again, this is not unique to him, and is a very common complaint at international level — partly because national sides, having less time to prepare, are always less slick than the best club teams; and partly because a lot of people with limited knowledge of football get involved at major tournaments and demand to be entertained and excited. 

For some, though, that has become merged with doubts over Southgate’s (apparently) liberal principles. He is the establishment bureaucrat thwarting the will of the people; if only he would stand aside, with his pettifogging insistence on process, the glory of the English people could be unleashed. This, of course, is precisely the arrogance that has dogged English football since countries outside Britain started to get good at the game a century ago: the assumed superiority that means England approach most tournaments believing themselves to be among the favourites.

In 2018, England had sunk to the point that expectation was lowered, which perhaps made it easier for Southgate to enact his decent revolution. By 2021, the expectation was back, and in Southgate’s insistence his players should be “humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves”, there seemed a veiled warning against the arrogance of old — the arrogance of English exceptionalism that, for some, perhaps, explained Brexit.

That has meant there has been an extra edge in some of the criticism of him; there is a clear sense from certain fans that Southgate is not one of them. But, as Southgate acknowledges, there are multiple Englishnesses. His is open, thoughtful and tolerant — which in the modern world feels a refreshing change. This is the word of the anteater.

Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated, the editor of the Blizzard and author of Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina.