Gareth Southgate’s appointment as England boss in September 2016, initially on a temporary basis, before being made permanent, was met with a collective shrug from football fans across the nation. The England job was a poisoned chalice: we were doomed to fail forever more and that was that.
We’d tried everything: the best foreign managers in the world (Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello) the ‘intellectual’ English managers (Steve McClaren, Roy Hodgson) and the tracksuit managers (Kevin Keegan, Sam Allardyce) - and they’d all failed. There were no other English alternatives, and no one else wanted the job. Even Southgate didn’t think he was ready for the post just two months earlier, when Allardyce was appointed.
Even when he guided England to qualification for the World Cup, no one got excited - after all, we’d qualified out of a relatively easy group. But, quietly, Southgate had started to change things up, with the team moving to a 3-5-2 formation, and Wayne Rooney - who’d started World Cup qualification as captain and England’s record goalscorer - being left out of the squad in March 2017, a big call that prompted Rooney to retire from international football in August that year when he turned down Southgate’s offer of a recall.
Change was afoot, with young players being selected, and players of all clubs being considered, rather than the traditional ‘big club only’ attitude that many of his predecessors had adhered to.
Now, of course, following England’s march to the World Cup semi-final, with a squad that appears to possess an incredible team spirit, and Southgate’s exemplary conduct throughout, he is the toast of the nation. He has overseen England’s best World Cup performance in 28 years, their first penalty shoot-out win in 22 years, and his new captain Harry Kane is odds-on favourite to be England’s first golden boot winner in 32 years.
Most people have been honest enough to admit that they got it completely wrong about Southgate - former Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan is just one of many to hold their hands up.
But then, was the pessimism over his appointment unjustified? Arguably not.
Southgate had taken over from Steve McClaren as Middlesbrough manager in June 2006 when the latter went to manage England. After an initially successful start, with two finishes of 12th and 13th in the Premier League, Southgate oversaw Middlesbrough’s relegation to the Championship in 2009. He was then fired in the October of the following season.
Appointed England Under-21 boss in 2013, he again failed to set the world alight, as England qualified for the finals of the European Under-21 Championship in 2015, but were knocked out in the group stages.
But one man saw something others didn’t.
Back in 2007, the Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger, who brought his epic 22 year reign at Arsenal to a close this summer, was consulted by the FA’s chief Brian Barwick on who would be the right person to succeed Steve McClaren, who was fired after England’s catastrophic failure to qualify for Euro 2008.
England would eventually decide that no Englishman was suitable for the job, appointing Fabio Capello, but Wenger disagreed with their conclusion that there were no good English managers.
“You have plenty,” he told a press conference before a match against Southgate’s Middlesbrough.
“You have Redknapp, Curbishley, Coppell, Southgate, Pearce, Allardyce - they are all good enough.”
He explained how management was different at club and national level.
“They are different jobs. In the club, it’s a guy who needs football experience, who needs to make decisions on who to buy, when to buy, when to sell, to build the team and have a vision of how you want to play.
“In a country, it is different. You do not have all these problems. You just take the players available. There are no big choices or big decisions to make.
“I feel you do not rate [these managers] enough. Give them a chance.”
Harry Redknapp, Alan Curbishley, Steve Coppell and Sam Allardyce were hugely experienced managers, and even Stuart Pearce had managed both Nottingham Forest and Manchester City, as well as being the England Under-21 coach at the time.
But Southgate was only in his second season as a manager. Clearly, Wenger saw something in him way back then that many others did not.
Of course, looking back, Southgate’s ‘failed’ time at Middlesbrough was not quite as straightforward as it first looked.
As a 2009 Telegraph article explained, written the day after Southgate was fired, there were, “many mitigating circumstances to his demise at Middlesbrough”, detailing how Southgate had to balance the books after years of spending under Bryan Robson and Steve McClaren, slashing the wage bill and encouraging youth (does that sound familiar?).
The article explained how wages were cut so severely that “when Boro were in talks to sign Ben Watson from Crystal Palace, in the January transfer window, they offered no increase in pay even though he was moving from the Championship to the Premier League”.
Moreover, there was a distinct feeling that Boro had pulled the trigger too early: the team were handily placed in 4th position in the Championship when Southgate was dismissed, only one point off top spot and having just beaten promotion rivals Derby County 2-0.
Fast forward to his time as England Under-21 coach and he was highly regarded by the players, and enjoyed a huge 82% win record as boss, with 27 wins, 3 draws and just 3 defeats in his 33 games as coach. Of course, it was during this time that he was able to work with many young players who would eventually step up to the first team.
As Wenger enjoys his first summer off in 22 years, he may afford himself a wry smile that one of his predictions has been borne out so spectacularly.