Two indelible images of Bukayo Saka remain from England’s momentous Euro 2020 tournament. The first is of the happy teenager looking as impudently relaxed playing in the swimming pool with a giant inflatable unicorn as he does gliding past opponents on the pitch. The second is of the weeping youngster being consoled by manager Gareth Southgate, after missing the penalty that gave victory to Italy in the final.
In his 2020 book Anything Is Possible: Be Brave, Be Kind & Follow Your Dreams, 50-year-old Southgate reflected on how missing the crucial penalty against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final left him feeling like “I had let everyone down – myself, my team-mates and the nation.” No one is better placed to help Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho – the three who failed with their spot kicks – than Southgate, who said of his role guiding young players that, “there are times when my parental instincts kick in”. Southgate knows what a burden it is to have the great expectations of a nation on his shoulders. He is as decent, genuine, humble and self-effacing as Joe Gargery (although possessing a more intelligent, analytical mind than Charles Dickens’ quietly heroic character) and looked after Saka with all the tenderness that Joe showed in caring for his young brother-in-law Pip.
“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football,” wrote Terry Pratchett in his novel Unseen Academicals. The implication, to borrow the title of Joan Didion’s famous We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, is that it is always about narrative, and the stories a culture tells to define itself. And the thing – the important thing – about Southgate’s courageous Euro 2020 adventure is that it reframed, in a positive, enlightened way, the decades-long narrative of the national game, and in a way that is not just about football.
As manager of the England Under-21 team, Southgate worked with many of the current squad when they were youngsters – including Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw, John Stones, Harry Kane, Jordan Pickford and Jack Grealish – and he’s encouraged them to be the first generation of England players to champion social justice causes.
This has included taking the knee, a gesture that could not be more important, more potent, eloquent and meaningful in the aftermath of defeat and the grimly inevitable news that the three young penalty takers – all brave enough to step up in front of the watching world – have been subjected to vile racist abuse in the aftermath of defeat.
In early June, Southgate spoke out against those fans who loudly booed when England’s players took the knee before their friendly against Austria in Middlesbrough: “It’s not something on behalf of our Black players I wanted to hear,” he said. A few days later, he penned an open letter to the nation, titled “Dear England”. The open letter has a distinguished place in literature – think of poet Siegfried Sassoon’s attack on military leaders during World War One, or the anti-Semitism polemic “J’Accuse…!” by Zola (Emile, not Gianfranco) – but it’s highly unusual in football. It’s hard to imagine anything like “Dear England” coming from Southgate’s predecessor, the picaresque foghorn Sam Allardyce.
Southgate wrote about mental health, a polarised society and the need for his players to stand up for “equality, inclusivity and racial injustice”. He again directly addressed the issue of prejudice, adding, “Why would you choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin? I am confident that young kids of today will grow up baffled by old attitudes and ways of thinking.” His statement brought to mind the words of Albert Camus, Nobel Prize-winning author of The Plague, who played as a goalkeeper for the Racing Universitaire D’Alger junior team, and his famous reflection that “what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football”.
Rashford, just 23, is an antidote to one-dimensional clichés about footballers. He has done such remarkable work in highlighting food poverty, and he recently helped launch a nationwide reading initiative. He made a truly heartening gesture, on the eve of the semi-final victory over Denmark, when 18-year-old British tennis player Emma Raducanu was forced to abandon a match at Wimbledon because she was hyperventilating.
English football is sometimes mired in toxic masculinity, yet Rashford’s first impulse was to console Raducanu, sending a tweet in which he admitted that the same thing happened to him playing for the Under 16 team against Wales. “I remember it to this day. No explanation for it and it never happened again. You should be very proud of yourself. The country is proud of you,” he wrote. The times really are a-changing.
Kurt Vonnegut said that one of literature’s most fundamental plots is: “Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People never get tired of that story”, and it’s no surprise we’ve all been moved by Southgate’s ‘hero’s tale’. He recovered from the agony of that penalty miss, a later debilitating knee injury and his “humiliating” sacking as manager of Middlesbrough, to become the sort of warm, inclusive leader who has inspired a group of players he described as “proud and liberated in being their true selves”.
It is no coincidence that one of Southgate’s mantras is that “kindness changes lives”. Consider how he has helped transform Shaw, who scored that magnificent opening goal against Italy. It is obvious that Shaw responds to Southgate’s respect and encouragement more than to Mourinho-style negativity. Another player who has flourished under Southgate is Sterling, who has also endured horrendous racist abuse. Despite a traumatic background – his father was murdered in Jamaica when he was two – he’s emerged as a leader on and off the pitch.
When Southgate took over in 2016, he was faced with changing an endless cycle of “England expects, England never delivers”. After winning the World Cup in 1966 (that time the advantage of a Wembley crowd helped), the following half-century of hurt was a sorry saga of disastrous campaigns, usually ending in despondency, endless excuses, recriminations and the sacking of yet another ridiculed manager. It became baggage too heavy to carry.
Southgate was part of national sides who buckled under the pressure of great expectations. He played alongside the so-called “Golden Generation” of 2000 – some of whom displayed all the hubris of Jay Gatsby – and I know he was dismayed by the way the underachieving World Cup squad was split into club-based cliques. He insists on togetherness and fun in his England camps, and this group of players responded. They gave Southgate a moment of personal redemption, and answered his plea to “make history” when they beat their German rivals for the first time in five knockout games.
Unsurprisingly, the team’s success in reaching the final was seized on by politicians, including Boris ‘Bunting’ Johnson. Back in 2007, shortly after Southgate retired from playing, Johnson wrote an article lambasting English footballers for their lack of brains (“in English football you are called Prof if you have two GCSEs; no wonder we are outwitted on the pitch,” he sneered). Gary Neville struck a chord after the Denmark semi-final win when he contrasted the Prime Minister’s performance with that of Southgate, commenting, “the standard of leaders in this country in the last couple of years has been poor. And looking at that man there, that’s everything a leader should be: respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine.” It’s telling that in the immediate aftermath of defeat, Southgate took “total responsibility” for the controversial choice of young penalty takers.
This exhilarating tournament has been a real tonic after such a grim, tragic year. Losing on penalties was a bitter disappointment, but the incredible team spirit, work ethic, displays of compassion and the inclusivity of a diverse young squad tells a significant new story of the team, and our country. It’s a story that matters – and an inspiring example for millions of young children.