Gareth Southgate’s extraordinary letter says a lot about England

Unprecedented ‘Dear England’ letter shows exactly where coach’s inclusive squad stand

Gareth Southgate: “I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.” Photograph:  Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Gareth Southgate: “I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.” Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

 

Gareth Southgate was lying on a beach in Greece thinking about Eddie McGoldrick. It was June 1994 and Ray Houghton had just scored against Italy in New York. It was a goal heard around the world.

McGoldrick was on the Irish bench on that afternoon. Born in north London, he had been first capped two years earlier against Switzerland.

McGoldrick was in Southgate’s thoughts and conversation because the two had been Crystal Palace teammates when McGoldrick had been called up. Now he was part of Big Jack’s squad at a World Cup and Southgate was asked if he had any comparable Irish connection that might see him capped by Charlton.

“No, I’m English,” was Southgate’s reply. “I want to play for England.”

As he has recollected, it was a response delivered with some irritation. At 23, he still dreamed of being Bryan Robson marauding through midfield and did not like this challenge to his nationality and view of international football. Southgate did not have an Irish grandparent, nor did he want one.

That’s because he had his own grandparents and he revered one of them, Arthur George Toll. Toll had been in the Royal Marines in the second World War and, as Southgate said, “was mates with John Sewell, the man who maintained the clocks at Highbury”.

If you are looking for routes into Englishness, then those two are pretty secure. As English as the Highbury clock – it could be said about Gareth Southgate.

Some 27 years on, Southgate mentioned Bryan Robson – and his granddad – again this week. But he was not lying on a beach in Greece. Rather, as manager of the England team, he was addressing his country via an open letter which began: ‘Dear England, it has been an extremely difficult year.’

What followed were 1,700 measured, reflective words in past, present and future tenses. Southgate mentioned the War again (his granddad), the 1982 World Cup (Robson), the look on the face today of an under-15 player turning up at England’s St George’s Park HQ for the first time.

He talked about “Queen and country” and pageantry, old England. He spoke, too, of the modern world he sees as a football coach, which could be much different to the one those outside football witness and experience daily. But it could be the future.

“I am confident that young kids of today will grow up baffled by old attitudes and ways of thinking,” Southgate wrote.

“For many of that younger generation, your notion of Englishness is quite different from my own. I understand that, too. I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”

Extraordinary intervention

Step away from the sheer relentlessness and volume of the 24-hour news cycle and this is an extraordinary intervention. It said something about 2021 England, it said something about Southgate, it said something about football.

Sociologically, ethnically, professional football often gets places first, because the beautiful game is the simple game, the cheap game and the frontline game that working class and immigrant families can play and relate to.

In football countries, the game is a foot in the door, offers a quicker possibility of assimilation – think of Norbert Peter Patrick Paul Stiles on the Irish Catholic Collyhurst streets of his youth, his uncle modelling his game on Johnny Carey, and then think of Nobby Stiles, the authentic England 1966 hero.

That was then: ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. But the Irish did settle, did assimilate, which is why Wembley on Sunday will have names such as Declan and Grealish in England white. There will also be Raheem and Bukayo. The families of Sterling and Saka also settled, or have tried to.

Sterling was born in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to London with his mother aged five. Saka’s parents moved from Nigeria to London before he was born. Soon Bukayo was listening to Liam Brady in the Arsenal Academy as his parents ensured he studied hard at school – he got ‘A’s in everything.

On Sunday Saka and Sterling will kneel before the kick-off against Croatia (who won’t) and their white teammates Rice and Grealish will join them in a show of support. So, too, will the England manager.

This, more than the formation or personnel, has dominated debate since England’s players were booed for taking a knee before the two pre-Euros friendlies at Middlesbrough. Like the tiresome ‘Barmy Army’ following England’s cricket team or the tedious ‘band’ at England football matches, those booing take up a lot of airspace. They have altered the climate.

Born in 1970, Southgate has the decades behind him to be able to connect different Englands, broadly, culturally, via Toll and Saka. Southgate knows his parents’ generation – his nickname at Palace in the 1980s was ‘Nord’ because he spoke like the TV presenter Denis Norden; you need to be 50 to even get the reference. And he knows Jude Bellingham’s – the 17 year-old he has called up. TikTok is unlikely to bring an image of the Highbury clock to Bellingham.

Southgate has the wit to understand that one generation might disconcert the other and that it is a good idea to listen to both. That was one of the points of his ‘Dear England’ address. As many said, it was the kind of mature letter you might once have expected from our politicians but no longer do. This is in part because England’s politicians have changed and England has changed and English reaction to immigration is changed.

Southgate is not one of these privileged bluffer MPs, though he is a challenge to them now. He has stepped away from being ‘merely’ a coach concerned with tactics and winning matches into a national figure with national attitude. This is someone who said previously he felt the Brexit cause/vote had “racial undertones”.

Another blazer

It takes courage to say such things, not the courage of Southgate’s teammates and friends such as Ian Wright or Chris Powell have had to display daily in their lives inside and outside the game, but solidarity nonetheless.

As Southgate said in his letter: “I have never believed that we should just stick to football”. Wright and Powell and Bukayo Saka will appreciate that he doesn’t.

The surprise, perhaps to some within English football’s establishment, is that they considered Southgate just another blazer. After all, in his 2003 autobiography Southgate says: “Some people are born to rebel, others to conform; I was a conformist.”

England manager Gareth Southgate with Jadon Sancho: He has stepped away from being ‘merely’ a coach concerned with tactics and winning matches into a national figure with national attitude. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images
England manager Gareth Southgate with Jadon Sancho: He has stepped away from being ‘merely’ a coach concerned with tactics and winning matches into a national figure with national attitude. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

But as anyone who has lived here knows, everyday England is full of conforming non-conformists. It is one of the secular strengths so many of us non-English witness. Southgate is recognisably and admirably English in this manner.

Funny, smart, caring and benign in his tournament nationalism, his self-deprecation is typical of lads’ understated, often sarcastic interaction. They just don’t get the airtime of the flag-wavers.

Southgate’s lack of conceit saw him share his autobiography with friend Andy Woodman, a much less celebrated Northampton Town goalkeeper. Southgate thought his public image was: “Nice guy, bit boring, though.”

Not any more. He has come to represent something greater, something different from the direction of travel into the “hostile environment” Theresa May set out to create. It’s here, as any non-English person can see – even the white ones.

As one English colleague put it, it’s gone all “Billy England” over the past five years. Southgate, a man who played proudly 57 times for his country, stands at angle to this. He has been criticised and will be criticised. He has become mes que un coach.

All of which means there has been less attention paid to the squad he selected – today ranked fourth in the world as opposed to 13th before Russia 2018. There are gems such as Mason Mount and Phil Foden; there are holes elsewhere. The team could surge, the team could slump. But one thing we know is where this squad, Gareth Southgate’s England, stand.

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