Invested, cerebral Gareth Southgate could be just what England need
If only the Football Association had left it just a little bit longer. After 65 days as England caretaker manager, Gareth Southgate was confirmed as the country's third permanent boss of the year, succeeding Sam Allardyce, who was there for 67 days. The idea of someone being in temporary charge for longer than his permanent predecessor would have rather nicely encapsulated the chaos that leading the national team can bring.
The FA likes to give the impression there is a through-line of thinking to everything. Simply, that there is a plan, and who can blame them? And yet you do have to wonder about how serious an organisation is about long-term thinking, when they sacked their previous manager after one game for some relatively tame, if unguarded comments to an undercover reporter. It was almost as if they were backed into a corner when appointing Allardyce, the loudest, blustering and ostensibly most obvious of the England candidates, but one that didn't really fit their vision and were always uncomfortable with.
After Allardyce's mild indiscretions came out, they acted like someone who'd bought a pair of expensive shoes, regretted it and was then relieved to find a small hole in the heel. The receipt was retrieved, and the "mistake" rectified.
In some respects, Allardyce's brief reign might have given them the excuse to appoint the man -- or at least the sort of man -- they wanted all along. Southgate has been an employee of the FA on and off since 2011, firstly as their head of elite development, then as manager of the Under-21 side. Now he is in the top job, a company man designed to introduce just a little calm.
Ever since taking the job on an initial temporary basis, Southgate has always had one eye on the future, and that was a theme as he spoke on Thursday at his second "unveiling." While he had previously been careful not to discuss his own future, before his first few games in charge Southgate was keener to talk about the team's future. He seemed to view himself as someone whose job was to usher the team forward rather than control it, and nothing much seemed to change despite the fresh signature on that four-year contract. The difference between the way he talked and Allardyce did was striking.
"There are a couple of parts to this role," Southgate said. "One of them is the senior team and their results and how they perform, but also I've got a duty to English football and English coaches. I feel a responsibility as an English coach with a big job to show what English coaches can do.
"I'd like to engage some of the English coaches that are in the game, invite them in from time to time, and maybe they can experience life in the camp, which I think is important. Next time the England manager role becomes available -- which I hope is a bit longer -- I hope I've played a part in showing them what that looks like."
FA chief executive Martin Glenn didn't get up and applaud, but he might as well have done. Calling Southgate a company man might sound like a pejorative, but it doesn't have to be. He's under no illusion that in the wider world he won't be judged on anything but results. However, he also seems clear that he has long stretches of time when he isn't managing England games and might as well use that time productively. He might not be the most inspiring choice if all England are looking for is a bombastic manager to get instant on-pitch results, but there remains the sense that he won't be any worse than anyone else they could get to do the job. So from that perspective, they might as well have someone invested in the whole thing.
The question of expertise gathered from former England players was raised too, with the recent retirement of Steven Gerrard and the presumably imminent departure from playing duties of Frank Lampard.
"There are different ways in which former players can help the team," said Southgate. "Maybe they can come in and talk about their playing experiences. Maybe they can come in and talk about something specific, work with something specific. If we're talking about players coming in to coach, I'd want to see a real commitment to coaching. I accept some of the guys are going to want to do that, and some of them maybe aren't. The doors are open."
There's a pragmatism to how Southgate presents himself. He's not dogmatic in the manner of his fleeting predecessor. He'll use whatever is available to him, his mind as open as the doors. At this stage the FA don't have much to lose, such has been the mediocrity and occasional incompetence of the national team in recent years: Southgate's broader thinking might be just what they need.
Even when pressed on the issue of Wayne Rooney's recent night out, Southgate's thoughts were turning towards the collective.
"I think the players would have and do have some good ideas on [how to spend their 'down time']," he said. "Maybe some of that down time is together a bit more. Maybe how that's controlled needs to look a bit differently. The key is that we always have to be thinking about performance, what's right for performance."
The newest England manager comes across as a man who is always thinking, always picking apart what's in front of him. The question of the captaincy, for example, brought a lengthy musing on whether it's necessary to have a permanent skipper.
"When you do have a permanent captain, as soon as you leave them out of the team, it becomes a massive story," he said. "My ideal is what we had in Euro 96 -- six or seven guys that are captains of their club, that are men, that stand up and take responsibility on the field."
It was tough not to be impressed.
Of course, all of this is in theory. Southgate has thus far talked an excellent game but with two relatively plodding wins and two draws in his four games, he has managed merely an average one.
Whether it all works in practice remains to be seen, but at least England can be sure they have a manager with broad horizons.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.