As Gareth Southgate watched England toil against Germany in their September Nations League match, he stood on the touchline at Wembley seriously contemplating the end of his reign. England had not won any of their past five games and were 2-0 down to one of their great rivals with 20 minutes to go. The atmosphere in the stadium flitted between boredom and mutiny, which he interpreted as a manager no longer wanted.
It is no exaggeration to say that Southgate was 30 minutes from making up his mind; once the inevitable wrath of this defeat had died down, he would announce that Qatar would be his last tournament.
“I never wanted to be a divisive figure in me doing the job affecting the team,” he said. “I did worry before the World Cup whether I had to say I was going at the end of the tournament, to give the players a chance to play, to free them of pressure.”
Instead the players freed their manager with a three-goal comeback that roused Wembley and pierced the gathering clouds. Southgate considered his future again after the World Cup quarter-final defeat by France, but it took him only eight days to decide to stay – he had the backing of the FA and the support of the players and, crucially, he still felt they could win something. Yet his contract is up after Euro 2024, and so it is almost certainly his final tilt at securing a trophy.
Perhaps that sense of a final fling explains why he conducted media duties at St George’s Park on Thursday with a little more swagger than usual. Southgate arrived to announce his 25-man squad for the upcoming Euro qualifiers wearing what The Independent has identified as a pair of Nike Dunk Low Retro trainers (£99) and a three-quarter zip sweatshirt (possibly cashmere), looking simultaneously like a man who’d just sold his web-design company and someone who knows their way around a kickflip.
There were probing questions, not least around the selections of Brentford’s Ivan Toney who is awaiting a verdict for breaching FA gambling rules, and Kyle Walker, who is being investigated by police after allegedly exposing himself in a nightclub, something the defender denies. Southgate insisted there were no conclusive reasons not to select them.
“The fact is he is playing for his available for his club,” Southgate said of Toney. “There hasn’t been a trial or any judgement so I don’t know on what basis we wouldn’t pick him.”
On Walker, he added: “It’s a complicated situation, I’ve spoken at length with him … I have to be very careful on being the moral judge on things. We feel we want him with us, we feel it’s the right thing to do. When you are an England international there is an even high bar on how you conduct yourself. I don’t we are taking those decisions likely.”
It is a position that might seem at odds with Southgate’s typical approach on player conduct, where he has in the past taken a firm stance – he memorably sent home Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood after they invited women to their hotel room in Iceland, and they were not selected for the next set of fixtures. He was strong on issues around breaching Covid guidelines during lockdown.
But then this is the new breezy Southgate; skater-man Southgate; call me Gareth, Southgate. He has been in the job nearly seven years and he has been here, at the beginning of a qualifying campaign, three times already. His allegiances remain with the players before anyone else, and if he has sometimes been loyal to a fault in his past selections, this was another example of his unwavering trust in those who have best served him in the past.
Along with mainstays like Walker were Harry Maguire, Eric Dier and Kalvin Phillips, who hasn’t started a league game yet this season. Toney and Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi were the most interesting selections but the rest fell in line with Southgate’s long-term thinking. Trent Alexander-Arnold remains too low in the pecking order of right-backs to be included, while Southgate stressed that one his favourites, Raheem Sterling, “definitely” would have been picked had he fit, despite his mixed form for Chelsea.
A tricky trip to Naples awaits next week to face European champions Italy, before the visit of Ukraine to Wembley, as qualifying begins without the benefit of any warm-up games. “We have basically a couple of days on the training pitch to prepare for a humdinger of a game in Naples. We have got to make sure we are ready for that. The players will be, we know we are as a group of staff and it is a good test for us now, these are the sort of games we have to show we can go to and win. That is the next step for us as a team.”
Not that Southgate needs any friendlies. He knows his squad well by now and he knows the job too. For what is almost certainly the last time he starts out on the long road to glory. And perhaps staring into the abyss at Wembley last September and coming out the other side has made him more comfortable in his skin and more certain of himself than ever before.
Full England squad
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Newcastle United), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal).
Defenders: Ben Chilwell (Chelsea), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace), Reece James (Chelsea), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Newcastle United), Kyle Walker (Manchester City).
Midfielders: Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), James Maddison (Leicester City), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Kalvin Phillips (Manchester City), Declan Rice (West Ham United).
Forwards: Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Ivan Toney (Brentford).