Gareth Southgate and England have become victims of the blame game
“These were the new horror days of a nation that was all played out, a nation of riot and yobbery, a nation with a ridiculous government, an economy in a tailspin – England, whatever the hell happened to England?”
There is probably some comfort to be found that these words were written three decades ago, coda to another epic tournament, another moment of cultural shift that seemed, at the time, to be oddly bound up with England football.
All Played Out, Pete Davies’s chronicle of Italia 90, is still the most profoundly brilliant book written about football, Englishness and English football. As Gareth Southgate’s players prepare to take their first step into these plague‑era Euros on Sunday afternoon, a month-long jaunt around the previously borderless entity known as Europe, that opening passage feels like a longsighted nod from the past. Plus ça change. Plus, c’est the same old thing all over again.
And so here we go. Welcome to international football in the time of rage and counter-rage, of gestures and jeers, and a team and a manager who have become, against all expectation, profoundly politicised.
Southgate has had six days with his squad to prepare for Croatia at Wembley. He has stretched those days to their limits, poring over defensive structure, midfield balance, fine points of personnel and, in a departure from the standard manager’s brief, the precise definition of the concept of “Englishness” and the semiotics of race and tolerance. Graham Taylor called it the impossible job. Graham, old bean, you have no idea.
It was inevitable the so-called culture war would invade football’s very public oppositions. Everything is polarised, every object has a binary meaning. On one hand masks, Marcus Rashford, performative vaccination and agreeing with the Duke of Sussex. On the other flags, Jack Grealish, pre-match McCarthyism and agreeing with the Duke of Cambridge.
What is interesting is how those chips have fallen. For the first time the England team and manager are decisively and unarguably of the left. For the first time there is a schism between players, manager and the team’s core fanbase.
At Italia 90, the heavy weather around Bobby Robson’s England was centred on the behaviour of the travelling fans, demonised by the Thatcher government as barbaric marauding hordes and a very handy scapegoat for the tensions of the time. Blame football, blame the fans.
This time around Boris Johnson was able to speak directly to those supporters (also known as voters) who feel angered by England taking of the knee. Alliances have shifted. Blame football: blame the players. Blame the Marxist millionaires. And above all, blame the manager.
It is a hugely unexpected turn in the life and times of Southgate that he should become an oddly divisive cultural presence on issues that have very little to do with football.
Southgate is a son of working-class parents. His playing career was remarkable mainly for its doggedness, for the force of personality that drove him on from the reserves at Crystal Palace to a tournament semi-final with England.
That doggedness is a theme of his second footballing life, too. He felt like an accidental leader in 2016, an in-house fill-in. This has proved misleading over five years of quietly effective revolution. If he feels like an accidental politician too then this current status is also simply a function of character. Southgate has listened to his players and followed his conscience.
Now he faces a rare state of jeopardy. From here, at least until England start winning, team selection and tactics will be shot through with these external forces.
These Euros were already a difficult affair. England went into the 2018 World Cup liberated from expectation. Leadership, vibes and the luck of the draw got them to a semi-final. This time around Southgate has visible strengths in his team, allied with some obvious weaknesses and a difficult draw.
He has known for some time that his chances of success, and indeed England’s entire summer, are likely to rest on how his team wrestles with high-stake games away from Wembley. Southgate seems convinced his best hope is to play a back three, compress the space in England’s own half and have players who press hard from the front.
This might seem a contradictory idea. England’s defenders are their weak link so let’s insert another one into the starting lineup. But this is a matter of chemistry and balance. Plus the opposition also have a say in what happens.
Southgate has played his hand so close it is still possible he will continue with the back four England have used in their past five matches. This would allow another attacking presence.
It is a choice made easier by the fact Croatia have also evolved, but not in a good way. England have got younger and better since that World Cup semi-final. Croatia are older and weaker. England may well win and in doing so buy some goodwill for Southgate in the race against those free-floating furies.
If there is a lesson to learned from this peculiar intersection of politics and tournament football it is that England did adapt and settle at Italia 90. The fans were more blissed out than enraged. The team found previously hidden depths, thrilling and indeed uniting those who were watching.
That summer was joyful, and also transformative, as English clubs were grudgingly readmitted to Europe, a prelude to the boom times to come.
Football won’t solve your problems. But nothing succeeds like success and if there is a genuine sense of unity out there it is in the sense that everyone, without exception, needs a little escapism, a little collectivism and a reminder that life can also be a source of shared pleasure.