Southgate embraced own misery to change England mindset


The Associated Press

MOSCOW — The wine was flowing under the chandeliers of the luxury London hotel ballroom when Gareth Southgate was given a painful reminder of the most agonizing moment of his playing career.

Surrounded by current and former players, Southgate was trying to look forward to his World Cup as England coach when he was taken back 22 years.

Inside the awards’ dinner speech at the Grosvenor House in April, Southgate had to endure the penalty miss that led to England losing the 1996 European Championship semifinal being a punchline in a speech by Professional Footballers’ Association chairman Ben Purkiss.

Many athletes would have recoiled at being the object of derision in an audience of their peers. Purkiss later felt compelled to contact Harry Kane to explain a joke at the England striker’s expense.

But Southgate hasn’t tried to hide away from his own misfortune in the glare of the world — from the self-deprecating Pizza Hut advertisement at the time to talks with the England squad now under his command.

“When something goes wrong in your life,” Southgate advises, “it doesn’t finish you.”

You can even lead the national team.

Progress at the World Cup in Russia has been secured by the shootout that has haunted England for so long. A victory over Colombia on Tuesday carried the English into their first World Cup quarterfinal since 2006 and was the work of meticulous planning.

England teams have been practicing penalties for years without being able to find a way of coming out on top when games end tied after extra time and the winner is determined by a test of strength between a striker and goalkeeper separated by 12 yards.

So much of Southgate’s job has been about changing the mindset of a country that is credited with inventing soccer but has been scarred by failures on the international stage, aside from the senior team’s only title at the 1966 World Cup.

Players had been told for years that penalties were a lottery. Southgate told them it was a process they could own.

“It’s not about luck,” he said ahead of the 4-3 shootout win over Colombia. “It’s not about chance. It’s about performing a skill under pressure. There are individual things you can work on within that. We have to know who is in charge, who needs to get out of the way, who can speak with clarity to the players.”

Not fearing failure was a significant psychological hurdle to overcome.

Southgate embraced his own public humiliation to help the current generation of players prepare to cope with setbacks. At the St. George’s Park training complex in central England, the messages and tactics have been transmitted through the age groups of England teams.

Slowly, England is shaking off its losing mentality.

Victory in the under-20s World Cup in June 2017 was followed by glory in the under-17s edition in October, and now Southgate’s squad remains on track to add a third FIFA title.

Whereas past England sides might have recoiled after conceding a stoppage time equalizer to Colombia, this group held on through extra time and broke the penalties’ curse.

Before Tuesday night in Moscow, England since 1990 had been knocked out of three World Cups on penalties and three European Championships. The only success came at the Euro ‘96 against Spain before Southgate’s miss in the semifinal against Germany.

With England fans outnumbered by Colombians in the Spartak Moscow stadium, it was an even greater test of nerves for Eric Dier to make the winning kick against Colombia.

“It was like an out of body experience,” Dier said Wednesday. “I just tried to stay in the moment.”

Southgate has been working to remove players from their comfort zone after seeing — as a UEFA technical observer — how Roy Hodgson’s England froze under pressure and was eliminated by Iceland in the Euro 2016 round of 16. Players were taken last year to the Royal Marines’ Commando Training Centre. One exercise at the boot camp saw players submerged in water.

“[Southgate] wanted to change the way we are and try something different,” Kane recalled. “Because in recent times we haven’t been great for England in tournaments. It’s about trying to change that mental attitude.”

Southgate had initially rejected the chance to succeed Hodgson after the Euro 2016, believing he lacked experience, having only coached a senior team for three years at Middlesbrough until 2009.

But after three years as England’s under-21s coach, Southgate was jettisoned into the top job in September 2016 by an unexpected vacancy when Sam Allardyce lasted just one game before his brashness and unguarded bar talk forced the English Football Association to part company.

At 47, Southgate has been keen to look beyond soccer for inspiration, particularly on trips to NBA and NFL games. He has retained steeliness while bringing compassion and warmth to the job.

The defining image, perhaps, of Tuesday in Moscow was not Southgate celebrating but of him consoling Mateus Uribe, whose eyes were covered by his Colombian jersey after his missed kick.

That’s a reflection of the human touch England players have come to expect from Southgate.

“We have spoken a lot about togetherness,” Kane said, “and we’ve got a great bond off the pitch.”

By Paul Wager

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