Gareth and the Golden Generation: Epic tale of England’s manager set to enter its final act

As England’s Euro 2024 campaign kicks off against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen, Southgate will carry England’s expectations on his shoulders for one last time

England manager Gareth Southgate at England's training session in Jena, Germany on Tuesday. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

Fail again. Fail better. Or maybe, with a following wind and some luck, don’t fail at all. By now it probably won’t make much difference either way. Not when it comes to things such as legacy, impact and understanding the journey from there to here. Welcome to Late Gareth, the age of unreason. As Gareth Southgate embarks on his fourth and surely final tournament as England manager, kicking off with Sunday’s understatedly tricky Euro 2024 opener against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen, something else has become increasingly clear.

Almost by stealth, England appear to have come full circle. The revolution has folded in on itself. Squint a little and we are now pretty much where we started with this thing.

If there was a mission statement to Southgate’s initial lo-fi appointment, a mantra of early Gareth-ism, it boiled down to two very obvious things. First, changing the weather, the noise, the heavy air around England, swapping sullen celebrity collapse for fun, unicorn-swimming and waistcoated air-punches in the Samara sun. There will be no English exceptionalism. There will be no hype-rodeo, no Golden Generation wiffle. We can, at the very least, translate hope and expectation into something light and reasonably pitched.

And second, there was an obvious desire to shift the story from personality to process. To move on from a drama of Big Sam, Big Roy and Quite Big Gaz, to make it instead about process and pathways, the development of talent and the provision of opportunity, freed from quick fixes and the cult of the manager.

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Well, good luck with all that. Because it turns out those roots run deep. And this has already started to look like a journey back to a familiar place. Most obviously England football is once again disoriented by the promise, the allure, the basic confusions of a group of talented players.

What we have here, two decades on from the overblown debaucheries of Sven-era Baden-Baden, is another golden generation, an increasingly common descriptor applied in the build-up to these Euros.

England do have a very strong squad in specific positions, mainly attacking midfield. They also have obvious holes. They have a chance of winning this tournament, as do at least four other nations.

Gareth Southgate shakes hand with a fan after a training session of the English national soccer team in Jena, Germany. Photograph: Anna Szilagyi/EPA

Yet the talk, the chat, is once again about a hand of talent that is “the envy of the world”, about righteous attack, about not just releasing the handbrake but wrenching it off and hurling it out of the window, “overwhelming” other very competent football teams who also have good players. For all the mannered humility, the process, the care taken along the way, this is basically a reboot: Golden Generation 2: This Time We’re Convinced We’re Not Really Like That.

Then, of course, there is the more specific question of Southgate himself and the return of the Impossible Job. For all his intentions the other way, eight years on from his unveiling Southgate remains as much the frontman, lightning rod and angrily assailed sole arbiter of English success as any of his predecessors.

It is an extraordinary turn of events for anyone who remembers premodern, pre-England Gareth, a courtly, likable figure, with the look in his public appearances (it was once said) of an anteater only now realising it’s not supposed to be able to talk.

How big is Gareth? Gareth is box office. Gareth is literally the story, to the extent the BBC has commissioned a four-part, four-hour TV version of the hugely successful stage play Dear England, in which our hero will again be played by the revered stage and screen actor Joseph Fiennes, whose pre-Gareth roles include William Shakespeare, Lawrence of Arabia, Merlin and Jesus Christ.

Euro 2024: Can England finally win a first trophy since 1966?Opens in new window ]

We are entering the denouement to that fourth act. And doing so with a sense this is a story that will be framed in grudging minor chords whatever the outcome. There are two issues here. First, Southgate is in a situation where, thanks to his own raising of expectation, he basically can’t win, even if he wins, a situation known as Gareth’s Conundrum.

England will either fail to win the Euros and Southgate will find himself jeered off by those already predisposed to jeer, cast as a fraud, destroyer of dreams, betrayer of Albion and all the rest. Or England will win the Euros, and Southgate can be jeered off as a piggyback artist and tag-along, chastised for not winning previously, not winning enough, the accidental leader of a team that has now finally won in spite of him.

Second, and related, it has become impossible to really judge, or at least reach any consensus, on how well Southgate has done with England. This despite the fact the team were terrible before he turned up, despite the obvious evidence of progress. There really does seem to be not just doubt around this but an open wringing of the hands at how terrible Southgate has been across eight very successful years.

England’s coach Gareth Southgate embraces England forward Raheem Sterling after the Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium in London. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

What are the charges? Most obviously the myth that Southgate is overly cautious and overly loyal to his favourites. This doesn’t really have a basis in fact. Southgate certainly looks as if he might be cautious and overly loyal. He looks like a popular 19th-century village curate. He looks like the man who made millions by inventing the bicycle clip. But he is ruthless. Ask most of the class of 2018. As for cautious, well, just check out that current squad list. Are there too many attacking options?

Then we have the notion Southgate, having got England to the final of Euro 2020, threw away the final of Euro 2020. England were three missed penalties away from winning that tournament. The process worked. The team lost on a detail. And, as he will at the current tournament, Southgate was also managing weaknesses in that game. Italy dominated for long periods because they simply had a better midfield. In fact every big game England have lost under Southgate has come in the end from having the weaker midfield, from Croatia, to the Netherlands in the Nations League, to France in Qatar.

There isn’t much Southgate can realistically do about that fact. The English game provides the players. A more brilliant and mercurial in-game tactician might have rejigged the shape, disrupted the in-game patterns. Southgate is not perfect. He did, though, make a second final in 75 years happen. And this is good.

As for wasting a golden hand of talent, the question remains, how good is this group exactly? Pretty good? Very good? Overweeningly good? Is this really golden? Is the attack as potent as, say, Shearer-Owen-Wright-Sheringham-Ferdinand-Cole-Fowler? There is no pure defensive midfielder in the squad, no fit left-footed left back. England are good. But tournament triumph is not the default option here.

For all that, England football will remain essentially a blank screen, a place to carry whatever feelings their supporters choose to project on to it. The team that had no plan – who were exhausted, cliquey, burdened – will, with any luck, continue to not be any of these things under Southgate. The real issue at this tournament is how ruthless the manager has been in selection, a willingness to deadhead and inject fresh blood that may just leave the final version looking a little raw.

Alongside this Southgate will continue to do two separate jobs. Managing the team, and also managing Englishness, managing English hope, English fears, English pressure, something very few other nations demand on such a ludicrously overblown scale. (There is, for example, no football-based stage play called Dear Belgium, or Dear Paraguay, all about the terrors of being Belgian or Paraguayan.)

None of this is Southgate’s doing. But it will, as ever, be his burden to carry.

– Guardian