It was surely the defining moment of Gareth Southgate’s year to date. The full-time whistle had blown on England’s 4-0 Nations League defeat against Hungary at Molineux on 14 June – the country’s heaviest home loss since 1928 – and the boos and howls from the stands were venomous.
What Southgate did next summed up his strength of character, his nobility. He walked on to the pitch to applaud the fans who were jeering. Perhaps he thought he had sufficient credit in the bank, some kind of insulation, what with being England’s most successful tournament manager of the modern era, of any era since Sir Alf Ramsey.
The volume of hatred towards Southgate only intensified. By the press box a man bellowed abuse, eyes wide with rage, and he was a long way from being alone. It was Southgate who felt the isolation because, when his players walked around to give sheepish waves, they were met with applause from the fans who had stayed. This is England and this is the life of the manager. It is all on him when things go bad.
At the Football Association there was shock. The hierarchy do not feel that Southgate gets the respect he deserves from a section of the supporter base and they could not believe how quickly things had turned. Before England kicked off their Nations League campaign against Hungary in Budapest on 4 June – when they were beaten 1-0 – they had won 18 of 22 matches, losing only once, which was the penalty shootout defeat by Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
Southgate himself was shaken. Did he really need all of this? Four days previously he had told a group of journalists that he would not outstay his welcome in the job, which appeared to hint that he could be entering his England end-game. It was after the 1-1 draw with Germany in Munich and just before the 0-0 with Italy, also at Molineux.
Southgate is sensitive to the tides of public opinion, even what is written about him in the newspapers – the “noise” as he has called it. The Hungary humiliation put him firmly on the back foot and there is no doubt that the mood from the summer has tracked him to Qatar for the World Cup, despite his attempts to highlight the mitigating factors, which essentially boiled down to the players being scrambled after a long season.
Southgate truly needed a tonic in September but he did not get it, the team losing 1-0 against Italy in Milan and drawing 3-3 with Germany at Wembley when they did at least rally from 2-0 down to go 3-2 up. It rounded off a dismal Nations League campaign, in which England were relegated from the top tier, and it has fed a narrative that has pressed down on Southgate from outside the camp.
The goodwill towards him has seeped away. The team has grown stale. And he is the problem. For Southgate it is now or never in Qatar.
The FA does not see it that way. It has Southgate under contract until December 2024, having agreed an extension in November of last year. The idea is that he will also have a shot at Euro 2024 in Germany, with the extra six months on the deal meaning there would be no unhelpful speculation about his future leading up to the tournament. Southgate could then help to smooth the transition to his successor.
From the FA’s point of view it has hit the jackpot with Southgate. After the missteps and scandals with previous managers, it has the consummate statesman, measured and at ease on any subject, almost never taking the wrong line. An excellent man-manager, he has also delivered results.
The FA is always looking at contingencies and would be open to an overseas successor to Southgate, with the British field looking slim at present. There was surprise within the organisation when the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Bill Sweeney, said the “preference” would be to replace Eddie Jones with an English coach. Why would he limit the choice?
The FA would be massively reluctant to sack Southgate after the World Cup unless the team absolutely bombed and even then it would probably be a mutual decision. It feels as though the onus would be on Southgate to consider whether to press on.
If it is to be the 52-year-old’s last dance with England, then he would be at peace with that. Southgate has eyes only on the challenge over the next month, which begins against Iran on Monday. He was able to move on after the Hungary debacle, to regain his sense of perspective. It is now about embracing the moment, the tremendous opportunity.
Southgate cannot care that his left-leaning sensibilities grate with some fans or that his playing style is perceived as overly cautious. Defending with all 11 men wins international tournaments and Southgate has to be more bothered about regaining the defensive solidity and balance of 2021 when his team kept 14 clean sheets. This year there have been two.
As for the theory about Southgate needing to win the World Cup or be branded a failure, that it is the only available option after reaching the semi-finals last time and then the Euro final, it is ludicrous. The tournament feels wide open, with about eight countries in with a chance – including England. But to believe that Southgate’s team will do it, have to do it, is to be guilty of a comical case of exceptionalism. England do have lots of talent. They also have gaps which are not all Southgate’s fault.
The FA has done everything to get the squad’s base in Qatar right. The hotel, the Souq Al Wakra, is unprepossessing by previous England standards, feeling more four star than the five it has. But it is private and tranquil, set by a lovely stretch of beach and calming waters, benefiting from being outside Doha. It feels ideal. The pristine training pitch at the Al-Wakrah Sports Club is a five-minute drive away.
What Southgate has done so successfully is to finesse the environment within his squad, creating one free of suspicion and club rivalry; the players want to join up and express themselves. Listen to any of them and they will invariably highlight the togetherness, the lack of individual ego. It is a platform for good things.
There has been much fretting about the poor form of certain likely starters – especially Harry Maguire and Raheem Sterling – but others are in fine touch, chief among them Kieran Trippier, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane. Luke Shaw has got his groove back after a difficult start to the season. Phil Foden has had good games.
There has been a strange vibe in Qatar this week; so quiet with the World Cup so close. There are banners and flags and there is plenty of Fifa’s mauve signage but no atmosphere, no electricity, although it must be said that the volunteers are friendly to the point of their lives depending on it.
Southgate’s challenge is also unusual: to prepare his 26 players in next to no time with each needing different fitness programmes to correspond to their seasons so far.
Confidence is high. Those who have spoken to the media have not been afraid to embrace the levels of expectation, to declare that England can win. In the past there has almost always been something that goes wrong; a rush of blood, a missing detail, a lack of in-game management. Southgate knows that he has to be perfect.