Following the embarrassment of crashing out to minnows Iceland in Euro 2016, large parts of the nation were underwhelmed with the appointment of Gareth Southgate after Sam Allardyce’s extraordinarily short tenure. Even with a successful World Cup in 2018 that saw a first semi-final appearance in a major tournament for 22 years, many were sceptical coming into the Euro 2020 tournament this year. So how did this unfavourable appointment become the man to lead the men’s national team to only the second final in England’s history, 55 years after the first?
As a long-standing supporter of Gareth Southgate, the way he has galvanised a team not on the brink of despair but fully submerged in it is admirable. While many diminish his success as a product of the exceptionally gifted squad at his disposal, few of his predecessors had poor squads. England are never short of footballing talent, and never will be. So, to see so many great teams fall by the wayside, Gareth has had to alter the mindset of his squads, and he has done so to great avail so far.
He has always made us aware of his outlook on the importance of sport psychologists, which was again highlighted earlier this year when he revealed he had been speaking with a leading sport psychologist in Michael Caulfield and encouraging his players to follow suit. He goes on to talk about how Caulfield simplifies sport and ‘makes sense of all the clutter’. This follows on from having introduced Pippa Grange before the last World Cup to improve the team’s ‘psychological resilience‘ which bore fruit when knocking Columbia out in a penalty shoot-out, something England are often on the receiving end of.
As well as utilising sport psychologists, Southgate identified an issue that may not necessarily involve football. A disconnection between the national team and the fans was developing, due to consistent disappointments in tournaments as well as the ever-increasing inaccessibility of players that are now perceived as superstars. That is, the importance of representing the country, and how the players can make an impact off the pitch as well as on it. This was made abundantly clear in his pre-tournament article defending the players’ decision to take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter.
The players have also conducted themselves in an exemplary way with MBE’s almost becoming a requirement in the dressing room with Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson following Marcus Rashford’s example last year. The misbehaviour of Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood last year used to be the norm among England players, but was dealt with superbly by Southgate, reinstating that this group of players are part of something much more. If they want to be involved, they are to act a certain way. The two players have since been integrated back into the team and seem to have learned their lessons, with the harmony of the squad visibly the best it has been for decades. Quite the contrast from Steven Gerrard stating international duty disrupted the league season whereas his Brazilian teammates were elated whenever the time arose.
As we approach the Euro 2020 final on Sunday evening, much will be said about the quality of the players, and perhaps Gareth’s pragmatic approach regarding team selections and tactics. What cannot be understated, however, is the influence he has had on the psychology of the players over several years and how this has finally bridged the gap between highly talented squads succeeding and failing. This squad will forever be remembered for their achievements on and off the pitch. Unifying a nation when it was well-needed, the ‘Players Together’ initiative that supported the NHS, campaigning for racial equality and free school meal vouchers to name a few. Southgate has a team he and the rest of the country can be proud of, whatever the result on Sunday evening.
Daniel Walker is a PhD researcher and a graduate teaching assistant at Edge Hill University.