“Permission to speak, sir!”
“Yes, Corporal Southgate?”
“I would like to volunteer to be that man, sir!”
And as the England manager Gareth Southgate prepares his team for a friendly against Germany, he stands revealed before us all as the Corporal Jones of English football. It’s a role that requires nothing but respect from those of us who watch.
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When others hung back, fearing for their reputation, their dignity, their value in the marketplace and themselves, Southgate has stood up and taken the job on – what’s more, he’s done it twice. As a result he has known pain and he has known blame; no doubt he will know a great deal more. But where others excel in the sphere of not attempting, Southgate has stepped forward and done his best, and if we can’t salute that, we are lesser people than he is.
It was in a match against Germany that Southgate first showed that admirable streak of Corporal Jones. It was 1996; the European Championships, the year that football was coming home and England were supposed to win the competition that was held on English soil.
In the semi-finals they played Germany, and it finished 1–1 after extra time. So, on to penalties. We are used to the weary ritual of penalties now: first the natural goal scorers line up and take responsibility. When you’ve gone through them, it’s time for the defenders to do what they can.
The score was 5–5, with no misses. Now what? Or, to be more accurate, now who? Southgate volunteered. And he didn’t miss. Everyone’s forgotten that. It wasn’t a bad strike, but Andreas Kopke, the German goalkeeper, saved it. And so Germany won.
Southgate has been carrying that on his back for 21 years. He had a very good playing career – highly competent rather than devastatingly brilliant, he made the best of what he had, and what’s wrong with that? And then into management.
There was a time when managing England was the top job. Not now. These days it’s a bit like taking a penalty: if you win, you’ve only done what you’re supposed to do, but if you fail you’ve let the entire country down.
Yet Southgate took it on. He’s an intelligent man; he knows what the job entails and how the public can veer in an instant from mad optimism to vicious blame-hunting despair. But there he is, managing England – and he will be hoping his team look worthy of sharing a pitch with the opposition.
Germany! So often the downfall of the England football team. And, unlike England, they have established a decent domestic league without compromising the national side. Southgate must long for a set-up like that. But instead, he works in a system in which everything is stacked against him.
But there he is, doing everything he can to make the most of England’s patchy resources, and making a very decent fist of it. His work in an uninspiring qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup has been, well, highly competent. We will learn more about him and his team in due course, but he may well end up being blamed for England’s failure. Again.
But if so, remember now, as he takes on Germany again: Southgate was the man who stepped up when everyone else hung back. He has dared to fail. Always respect him for that. As Corporal Jones said to Captain Mainwaring, so Southgate says to us all: “I would go through fire and brimstone and treacle for you, sir.”
England v Germany is on Friday 10th November at 7.30pm (k/o 8pm) on ITV, and at 7.45pm on Radio 5 Live