Gabriel Clarke has enjoyed a unique view of England at this year’s World Cup. The ITV reporter and post-match interviewer has been pitch-side for every game, has spoken with almost every player at England’s training base in Repino, and has followed Gareth Southgate, the wizard in the waistcoat, through his whole England managerial career.
So, what has he seen to suggest that football might, after 52 years, finally be coming home?
“I think what’s definitely stood-out is the sense of liberation around the camp – I don’t think that’s too strong a word,” Clarke tells RadioTimes.com.
“From World Cups I’ve done before and being around England, we’ve tended to talk about the fear that England teams play with. There has been a fear in the way in which the whole organisation has often dealt with things,” he says.
“That’s something Gareth was obviously aware of as a player, and he just wanted to cut through that, to release the pressure valve – simply by maybe not taking themselves too seriously.”
You can see that lack of self-importance everywhere, from the regular players versus journalists darts matches at camp to the memes flying around social media – jokes that the players are very much in on.
“Can you ask the neighbours to put the bins out on Monday? We’re not going home just yet” ???????????????????????????? pic.twitter.com/s1g3P3jj34
— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) July 8, 2018
For Clarke, standing on the touchline as Harry Maguire heads over to his girlfriend to become an internet sensation, it’s clear that England players are finally enjoying playing for their country.
“Pitch-side after the Sweden game, I said to Gareth, ‘Will you have a drink?’ ‘I’d love a pint of bitter, but I’m not sure where I’m gonna be able to get one!’ he said back.’”
Gareth Southgate applauds the @England faithful left inside the Samara Arena. ????????????????????????????????????
— Andy Walker (@_andywalker_) July 7, 2018
“That’s been a nice touch that,” Clarke adds, talking about the team milling about in the stadium after the game. “The players’ wives and girlfriends stay in the ground, as do the England fans, and fair play to FIFA, they’re not kicking them out. So, once the players have done the media duties – and for Gareth that might take about an hour – the fans are still waiting and out he comes to say thank you – and to be serenaded! That’s obviously something that he’s encouraged the guys to do, to savour the experience.”
— Gabriel Clarke (@gabrielclarke05) July 7, 2018
That experience now includes England’s first World Cup semi-final since 1990. That year Bobby Robson was the man in charge, a godfather of the English game. Clarke knows that story well too, having co-directed the biopic Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager earlier this year.
“One of the great things was that film was released just before the World Cup. Gareth and the players actually sat down to watch it together the day before the release. He texted me a nice message afterwards to say how great it was to watch the film and Bobby’s story.”
Does Clarke see any parallels between Robson’s journey and Southgate’s England campaign?
“There’s definitely a visual similarity,” he says, not in their looks but in how they react to situations. “In the film we’re preparing for before tonight’s match, we see footage of Bobby dancing on the pitch at the end of the game, and saying ‘I wish I could be back home where they tell me everyone is dancing in the streets.’ We then see Gareth conducting fans in the stadium, talking about the fans celebrating back home, watching videos of people in the streets. It’s that yearning for home a little bit, being connected to what’s going on back home.”
Beyond the celebrations, however, Clarke believes there is something else that links them: “Both are dignified men. They are very passionate about the game, but both have a big sense of perspective about where football sits in things. Bobby was very good when a crisis came in terms of being able to put it in perspective, and I think Gareth has the same thing.”
Gareth Southgate: "We're a team with our diversity and our youth that represent modern England"
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 28, 2018
That perspective reminds Clarke of an interview with Southgate before the World Cup (video above), when the pair sat down together to discuss his ambitions for the tournament.
“He gave a line in that interview about how this England team represents the diversity of England now. A new England, and a country that’s had problems in the recent past. He said, ‘Hopefully we represent the country where it is now, and we can help the country’. More than football. That struck me. That was it. That was really it.”