By Orlando Bell
The FA have handed England Men’s Manager Gareth Southgate a lucrative new contract that extends his tenure through till 2024. Despite the undeniable success of Southgate’s time as manager, this decision comes prematurely, binding England to a Southgate future even if we fail to progress in Qatar. There is little upside to this contract when patience would have strengthened the FA’s hand and England’s future.
First, let’s be absolutely clear; Gareth Southgate deserves to take England through to the World Cup in Qatar next year. Behind Sir Alf Ramsey – the man behind the revered 1966 World Cup triumph – outhgate may just be England’s most successful international manager of all time.
His 64.7% win percentage rate (44 wins out of 68) places him second only to Fabio Capello (excluding Sam Allerdyce’s one game tenure). He has guided a young side to a semi-final at the 2018 World Cup, a third place UEFA Nations League finish, and a heartbreaking Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy.
Given the context in which he started, our ignominious Icelandic Euro 2016 exit and Allerdyce’s disgraced resignation, this is an impressive record that more than credits faith in the manager.
But English international football has had two key goals for nearly a decade, and Southgate must meet both to merit extending his tenure beyond Qatar. When Greg Dyke was appointed as chairman of the FA in 2013, he described English football as ‘a tanker that needs turning around’. He set out two key goals – a cultural shift in English football, and winning the 2022 World Cup.
That first goal seemed even more pressing following the infighting, disconnect, and despair that surrounded the team in 2016.
Southgate deserves credit for reconnecting the side with fans, fostering a stronger team culture than the side has had for decades, and integrating multiple young stars. But if England fail to finally lift silverware in Qatar, to ‘bring it home’, it must surely be time for Southgate to go.
Managers, like players, can specialise in roles. Southgate has done a superb regenerative job and more but if England fail to win, or at least make and perform better in a final, there is little to indicate Southgate will be able to push the side forward.
Relegated and dismissed at Middlesborough, his CV lacks the pedigree to indicate there’s another gear to move beyond Qatar. Luis Enrique is a treble winner, Mancini has league titles in Spain and Italy. This is the level of competition Southgate faces.
Because of the huge potential of the side’s younger stars – Trent Alexander-Arnold is 23, Foden is 21, Mount 22, Greenwood 20, and Bellingham is just 18 – there’s an impression that England have time to spare, a leniency because of the promise of the future.
But more players than is often recognised are in their prime now and England would be foolish to presume players of this pedigree are a guarantee. At the World Cup following Qatar (North America 2026) Kane will be 33, Walker 36, Henderson also 36, Maguire 33 – all out of their prime.
This is not to say there isn’t a bright future. As well as the promise of youth, Kane is still England’s all time top scorer and Henderson is still a crucial leader figure. However, when these players retire or step down from England, these are substantial potential losses. England can, and should, win now.
Even if this is pessimistic, given the sheer quantity of youth coming through, momentum coming out of Qatar remains a difficult subject. Consider the way Harry Kane’s form has collapsed with the mental disruption of transfer speculation and the empty fatigue lingering from Euros heartbreak. Also consider José Mourinho’s so-called ‘3rd Season Syndrome’. Momentum matters in football.
If, in 2022, England come up short for a fourth consecutive tournament it may prove extremely difficult to rally once again without a shake-up.
The FA are right to remain absolutely behind Southgate going into 2022, but his future should have been decided after, not before, the campaign in Qatar.
If a contract was in place that only lasted until the end of Qatar 2022, England would be in a much stronger position. In this instance, if Southgate proves all doubters wrong and leads England to glory, the FA can hand him an extremely well-deserved lucrative contract. If England fail, the FA could let Southgate’s contract run out and move smoothly onto a fresh manager.
Instead, this premature contract binds the FA into significant financial settlement, media attention, and player disruption.
For this side to fulfill its potential England may need to be ruthless. Consider Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s respective dismissals. Two club legends, with limited managerial pedigree, making promising starts and building momentum at their clubs. But both were unable to take their sides to the next level.
Chelsea acted ruthlessly, heart wrenchingly dismissing perhaps the club’s greatest player but, within six months, they stood Champions of Europe. Meanwhile, Manchester United sit eighth and have been forced to make a managerial change just before the crucial section of the season.
England must not allow sentiment towards Southgate to dumb the competitive instinct. This contract binds England into a tricky situation with little upside. Southgate deserves praise, but England must keep moving forward if Southgate is to remain.
Image: Matt Brown via flickr