Whether Gareth Southgate likes it or not, he has become more than just a football manager. In a time of turmoil for Britain, the England manager is regularly asked for his opinion on social issues. He always replies, with a thoughtfulness that is typical but also with a lack of equivocation. On topics from Brexit to antisocial behaviour, he has said what he believes.
On Thursday, after announcing his 25-man squad for the European qualifiers against Bulgaria and Kosovo, Southgate shared his thoughts on the problem of racist abuse on social media. The problem, he said, “isn’t the medium through which they do it, the issue is the opinions of those people and the need to educate them and move forward as a society”.
He also spoke about the demise of Bury, though this turned out to be a subject that had a personal dimension to it, too. “The first game I ever went to was at Gigg Lane,” Southgate said. “I can’t say I remember too much about living up there, because I was only young when we moved, six or seven. But the first game I went to was Bury against Watford and Derek Spence scored the winner. I don’t think I watched much [of the game] as I was running up and down the terraces, probably with my dad clipping me round the ear, telling me to sit and watch! So it stays with you.”
When it comes to the current crisis, Southgate said his first thoughts were with the people who have lost their jobs. “The human element is that the players at that level have much more financial difficulty than players in the leagues above,” he said. “Of course, [it’s the same] with the staff. Like any other business that goes under, it’s a massive blow for the families. For the supporters too, for whom the club is part of the community and a real sense of identity.
“It’s a tragic story. It worries me and I think it could be something we see a bit more frequently. I’m not sure the game is sustainable in its spending, outside of the money that comes in from television. [It is] each club’s responsibility to manage their finances and the decision-making [at Bury] has not been the right thing.”
Asked what changes he thought were necessary to prevent another similar situation, Southgate was honest enough to demur. “I don’t know enough about how everything operates really,” he said. “What is clear to me is that, in a 92-team pyramid, and professional teams at non-league level as well, there are so many clubs in deficit and in debt. That can’t be sustainable, so that has to be addressed.
“I understand the desire for people to risk to progress and there’s examples where it has worked. I think clubs have to think seriously about their model and that is surely the classic example where young players coming through give an opportunity to clubs to have a sustainable model and use the talent that I believe exists in our country.”
Which brought the England manager back to his area of primary expertise. Southgate spoke this past week of the need for England to “keep evolving as a squad and as a team”. He has done that in part through his selection, introducing three uncapped under-23s to the seniors in the form of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Mason Mount and James Maddison. The average age of the squad is nigh-on a full year younger than the one that went to the World Cup (24.52 to 25.47).
But Southgate wants to continue to evolve not only the players but England’s style of play. That means learning from the mistakes of this summer’s disappointing Nations League finals.
“I think when we first took over there was a group who had been scarred a little bit by disappointment, and there was maybe a limit with how much we could shift with that”, Southgate said.
“I think those that have been with us over a period of time now have had far more positive experiences, so we don’t really have players who are haunted in England shirts. [But] we’ve had disappointments at the very latter stages of big matches.
“We have always maintained that to be a top team you have to be able to handle the ball from the goalkeeper right the way through. A couple of the goals we conceded [in the Nations League] had nothing to do with whether we play out from the back or not, thank heavens. And so they mustn’t lose faith in that, but equally, we had that a little bit against the Dutch and we went short too often and didn’t mix the game up. I think that to mix the game up … to be adaptable and recognise those decisions, to recognise those opportunities, is good play.
“I think that there is a requirement to entertain and to produce a style of play that people will watch. We have to try to achieve all of those things.”