Gareth Southgate’s Homegrown Heroes Repay England Manager’s belief in their Abilities

Gareth Southgate’s Homegrown Heroes Repay England Manager’s belief in their Abilities

The question posed by the director of Aston Villa’s 1995-1996 season video was a simple one, and the earnest answers accounted for a few minutes of premium club shop VHS. What, the members of the squad were asked, is your favourite drink?

This being the days before alcohol was identified as the enemy of the professional footballer, the players were quite specific. Nigel Spink was partial to a pint of bitter and, when it got late, a Bacardi and Coke. When in Dublin, Andy Townsend said he favoured a pint of Guinness. “Lager” said Carl Tiler, “or beer”. Only the 25-year-old centre-back Gareth Southgate seemed uncomfortable with all the boozing and famously clarified his position thus: “During the week I drink mostly water and stuff like that. But I enjoy a few beers at the weekend to unwind”.

That footage was first dug out from its corner of YouTube when Southgate was appointed England manager to try to illustrate how boring he was. Perhaps, by the tiresome standards of the old-school football man, but there has never been any pretence about Southgate to be the alpha male of yesteryear. The world looks different now.

Southgate asks that his players call him Gareth rather than “Boss”. As England manager he has demonstrated that it is OK to be patriotic without invoking the dreary spirit of Ten German Bombers and No Surrender. How? By demonstrating a quiet pride and staunch belief in the capacity of young English players to compete with the world’s best. As the Football Association’s head of coaching, he attended junior England team base camps at tournaments and got to know the boys at all levels. He came to believe fervently that there were good players out there, it was simply that many of clubs lacked the faith.
F or the most part this  Southgate team who have reached the World Cup semi-final , were not teenage prodigies. Many were not at big clubs or contracted to the kind of management companies one might expect to see in control of star names. One only has to look at their teenage social-media posts – Jordan Pickford’s tweet lamenting his parents’ refusal to install a Sky Box in his bedroom, Dele Alli’s bathroom mirror selfies – to see they grew up relatively unknown and unfiltered.

The current England team have not been burdened with the expectation that was the lot of the golden generation, notably Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole and then later Wayne Rooney. The England team that started the quarter-final against Sweden encompassed two from the academy of Sunderland, and another two from Sheffield United.  Barnsley, Watford, MK Dons, Queens Park Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur were all represented. Kieran Trippier was an apprentice at a pre-Abu Dhabi Manchester City. Only Jesse Lingard, from Manchester United, broke through at a long-standing member of the English game’s elite. Six of them made their parent-club professional debuts in the Football League.

All of them showed great early promise along the way, and some – like Alli – made rapid strides as soon as their potential was spotted. But none of them have been the archetypal child star. Like their manager, they have been obliged to take it relatively slowly and as a group of 11 players they have a total of 18 loan spells between them.

Southgate spoke about the profile of his team when he reflected on his background. “We’ve scrapped and fought our way,” he said. “Most of our boys have played in the Championship or lower, whether they started there or played on loan there.” In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s win, Southgate’s thoughts were still not far from what he considers the fundamental problem facing the English game. “The more remarkable thing is that we’re in a semi-final but we only have 33 per cent of the [Premier] league to pick from,” he said. “That is still a huge problem for us.”