London (AFP) – Gareth Southgate won over an English public who were sceptical about his ability to lead the Three Lions with a run to the World Cup semi-finals three years ago and is already silencing his critics at Euro 2020.
For the first time at a European Championship, England are off to a winning start as Southgate’s bold selection paid off in a 1-0 win against Croatia on Sunday.
Next up is a fixture against Scotland on Friday, with the chance to book their place in the last-16 with a game to spare.
Southgate’s team selection for the opener caused a social media storm before kick-off as Raheem Sterling retained his place ahead of Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish despite a poor end to his season at Manchester City.
Kalvin Phillips’s inclusion alongside Declan Rice in midfield and the decision to start Kieran Trippier at left-back also raised eyebrows.
But those calls proved inspired as Phillips set up Sterling for the only goal, while Trippier helped keep a clean sheet.
“I don’t think there would be one person in the 65 million English population who would pick that team today,” said former Manchester United captain Gary Neville, who played with Southgate at Euro 96.
“I thought he managed that game unbelievably today. I think Southgate is our greatest asset.
“The clamour was to go with Grealish but he didn’t even bring him off the bench. He’s had seven or eight tournaments as a coach, U21s and as a player, I feel very comfortable with him as a manager.”
Southgate’s lack of a stellar coaching CV at club level has counted against him in the eyes of his doubters.
His three years in charge at Middlesbrough ended in relegation from the Premier League in 2009.
But he rebuilt his reputation in three years as England’s under-21 manager between 2013 and 2016, fostering relationships with a number of his now-senior internationals such as Sterling, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, John Stones and Jordan Pickford.
– Personal touch –
That personal touch is a major strength of the 50-year-old as an international manager.
He has consistently spoken out on behalf of his players on issues of racism and social media abuse, most recently resolutely defending his side’s decision to keep taking the knee ahead of matches at the Euro despite boos from some fans and pressure from leading politicians to abandon the gesture.
“He’s great to talk to. He’s always putting his arm around the players, which is important,” said Phil Foden, who at 21 is playing his first major tournament.
Luke Shaw’s only previous tournament experience came in a disastrous World Cup campaign under Roy Hodgson in 2014 and the Manchester United left-back was taken aback by the togetherness Southgate has fostered even between Premier League rivals.
“When I first came back into this camp, the first thing I said to my girlfriend when I got home was how close the group are,” said Shaw.
“He’s (Southgate) really good around the place. I think he knows exactly what people need, what players need, and I feel like he’s starting to understand what’s the best for England.”
Southgate caught the eye with his waistcoats in Russia in 2018, sparking a fashion trend across the country.
Back on home soil, and with three extra years of experience under his belt, he is again proving there is substance as well as style.
But such is the life of an England manager that much of his good work will be forgotten should Scotland humble their neighbours at Wembley.
Southgate is off to the perfect start, but there is a long way to go if he is to end England’s 55 years of hurt next month.
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