It’s the 26th of June 1996. On a warm summer’s evening 25 year-old Gareth Southgate, at the time an Aston Villa player, stepped up to take England’s fifth penalty in a semi-final shootout with Germany. The quietly determined defender’s penalty was saved by ‘keeper Andreas Kopke, and Andreas Moller scored the next penalty to send Germany through to the final. Southgate cut a despondent figure, and along with his England teammates trundled off the pitch.
He would go on to make a total of 57 appearances for his country and played his final club game for Middlesbrough in the 2006 UEFA Cup Final. Almost immediately after retiring as a player Southgate was appointing as Middlesbrough’s manager, something of a trial-by-fire for a an inconsistent club in the top flight of English football, for someone with no prior managerial experience. He would fare ok, but only ok, landing a pair of mid-table finishes before eventually proving unable to save Middlesbrough from relegation in 2009.
It was here that Southgate showed a great deal of his understated steel. Despite the boos from disgruntled fans he strode to the middle of the pitch on the final day of the season to applaud the supporters. In the 09/10 season in the Championship Southgate was sacked a few months in (despite a strong start to the campaign), and spent a few years out of management. In 2013 he became manager of England’s under-21 side, and guided the young Lions to the 2015 under-21 Euros, albeit the tournament itself was disappointing.
It’s the 26th of September 2016. The England men’s national side has hit it’s lowest ebb. A few months after a tame exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, Sam Allardyce (who had replaced previous incumbent Roy Hodgson in July) found himself embroiled in controversy when he was exposed by the press for advising businessmen on how to circumvent FA rules on third-party player ownership. His position was now untenable, and a day later he resigned, with Southgate being moved into the role of England manager on an initially temporary basis. Steady results meant that Southgate would be retained as manager for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he would guide England to the semi-finals, and where he would show his qualities as a steady hand.
For the delayed Euro 2020 tournament, Southgate would prove to be his own man, so to speak. The English media would usually apply pressure on managers over team selection and style, but Southgate wasn’t going to be forced into any course of action he didn’t agree with. The quiet, reserved iron wouldn’t bend or flex in the face of external noise. Were England riveting to watch? Not especially, but two wins and a draw in the group stages sent England through to the knockout stages, and without a goal being conceded. The old stumbling block of Germany were overcome without too much difficulty. Against Ukraine England ramped up the intensity and won convincingly. Against Denmark England went on the attack in the second-half and in extra-time, and came back from behind to win.
So to the Final of Euro 2020, on the 11th of July 2021. England’s first final since the 1966 World Cup – a wait of 55 years. Whatever the outcome, Southgate and his squad had made football history – no previous England men’s side had reached the Final of the European Championships, and for many generations of England fans (this ‘kat included) it would be the first time we’d personally witnessed it. Wembley Stadium would play host to the Final, which would in theory grant home advantage to England, but would that be enough?
In the end, it wouldn’t be. Despite taking an early lead England couldn’t hold on, and the match went to a penalty shootout, where Italy prevailed. After such an amazing tournament, it was a gutting way to end it, but that’s football. Fairy-tales do sometimes come true in this sport, but equally, sometimes they don’t. Still, the team deserved credit for getting as far as they did. A number of barriers had been broken, a few hoodoos banished. The young squad will learn and grow; they have the potential and they have the time to achieve so much more. The future of English football is, for the first time in a long time, bright.