THEY used to call it the second most important job in the country, after that of Prime Minister.
Right now, though, by Gareth Southgate’s own admission, the England manager’s role seems largely irrelevant due to the shutdown of the professional game.
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And yet, not for the first time, Southgate’s open letter to England supporters has left us marvelling at his abilities as a great communicator and a unifying figure.
There are very few, if any, politicians capable of striking the right note as well as the Three Lions boss does — and surely none who are as widely popular across the nation.
One strange, and welcome, consequence of the coronavirus outbreak delaying the Euro 2020 finals by a year, is that it makes it far more likely that Southgate will lead England into the next World Cup.
Under the original timetable, there would have been a gap of almost 2½ years between the Euros and that winter World Cup in Qatar in November and December 2022.
And while Southgate, who earns £4million a year, is contracted to the FA until the end of those World Cup finals, he has publicly suggested — and privately insisted — that he would have been likely to call it quits after the Euros.
He turns 50 this year, has not worked in club management for over a decade and has ambitions to lead a major club.
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Now, though, England are likely to go straight from what is now Euro 2021, into a World Cup qualifying campaign and — if results are decent and the will is still there — Southgate is far more likely to stay on.
Those are not immediate concerns. As Southgate stated in his letter, we ‘shouldn’t spend another moment thinking about the postponement’ of the Euros and its ramifications.
Southgate’s letter was very much his idea and the words are his own rather than those of the FA’s public relations team — although its release was delayed so that it did not clash with announcements from Thursday’s Premier League crisis meeting.
But the message struck the perfect tone, highlighting the true ‘heroes’ in the NHS, speaking with concern about the mental health issues facing us all at a time of isolation and mentioning the ‘beautiful distraction’ football will bring when it returns.
With England unlikely to play until autumn, and the National Football Centre at St George’s Park closed, Southgate is at his north Yorkshire home and increasing the work he does on coaching development within the FA structure.
Yet if he turned up at daily Downing Street press conferences during this health crisis, his leadership qualities would surely be welcomed there, too. It is not the first time we’ve praised Southgate’s statesmanship.
During the several instances of racism England players encountered over their Euros qualifying campaign, Southgate spoke with passion about the need for education.
And England’s black players were appreciative of the way he grasped the issue and backed any decision to walk off the pitch — which almost happened when the match against Bulgaria in Sofia was halted as a result of racist abuse.
History will judge Southgate’s England tenure primarily on results — and leading them to a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years was a major positive.
But he makes ‘the impossible job’ look pretty straightforward, simply by being a decent, intelligent and thoughtful bloke.
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