The secret of Gareth Southgate's England success - as told by the man who saw it all in Russia

Gareth Southgate's side kick off their Euro 2020 campaign on Sunday against Croatia. Ian Murtagh – who covered England for years, including at the last World Cup – looks at the man carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.

Gareth Southgate, Head coach of England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Gareth Southgate, Head coach of England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Let’s call it Gareth Southgate’s “Brexit moment” because it offers a fascinating snapshot of the England head coach’s character and the way he is now perceived.

Not so long ago, managing the Three Lions was regarded as a poisoned chalice but that all changed three years ago under the enlightening stewardship of the former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Middlesbrough skipper.

It was July 6, 2018 and Southgate was squeezed into a small room with 18 national journalists at England’s media centre in Repino, the training camp 40 miles north west of St Petersberg where his squad was based.

The date was significant because most of us, indeed the majority of the nation, had expected Engand’s World Cup to be over by now.

But what happened a few days earlier changed all that.

When Jordan Pickford brilliantly saved Carlos Bacca’s spot kick and then Eric Dier cooly converted his own penalty, the Three Lions hadn’t just beaten Colombia in a second round penalty shoot-out after agonisingly conceding a last-gasp equaliser, they’d beaten their own demons.

With expectations at an all-time low, Southgate and his players may have been handed a free pass at that tournament but by succeeding where so many of his predecessors had failed, the coach, 47 at the time, was suddenly Mr Popular.

And so as those of us huddled into that backroom in Repino fired our questions at him, the atmosphere was friendly, cordial and light.

He was asked about emulating Sir Bobby Robson’s achievements at Italia ‘90, his feelings of redemption after personal heartache at the Euros six years later and offered an insight into how his management team had spent as much time on the psychology as the strategy and chicanery of shoot-outs.

And then came the killer question: “Gareth, as arguably the most popular man in the country right now, are you the man to solve the Brexit crisis?”

Talks back home were at an impasse with politicians on both sides of the argument becoming embroiled in countless hours of fruitless debate.

The man whose dress code had sparked an explosion in waistcoat sales in England, smiled, paused for a moment before politely declining to offer an opinion.

No-one was too surprised at his response even though we suspected where his sympathies lay but as someone who was doing a pretty good job at uniting the country, why should he spark division with an answer?

But that’s not the point. It was the question, not his reply, which shed light on Southgate’s managerial style.

Imagine, for example, interrogating Sven Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello or Englishmen Steve McClaren or Sam Allardyce in such fashion.

They would, quite rightly, have treated the Brexit question as a hand grenade and steered well clear.

Southgate was similarly guarded but the question wasn’t an act of mischief-making, more a sign of how respected he now was and an acknowledgement of his intelligence, articulation and well-rounded personality.

The players took their lead from him and to this day, representing the Three Lions, is seen by most as, not just an honour, but a welcome distraction from club football.

How times have changed. Just five years ago, Joe Hart dropped it into an interview that during Euro 2016, the players had organised a darts tournament.

Who won? He was asked in all innocence, before clamming up and refusing to say.

Southgate winced, not at Hart in particular but at the fact players lived in an environment so tense and suspicious, that they preferred not to reveal who hurled the best arrows.

On succeeding Allardyce, he was determined to change the culture.

A fortnight before the squad flew out to Russia, he organised a US-style Media Day, modelled on the Superbowl pre-event, in which every player was made available for interviews with TV, radio and newspapers having unheard of access.

The day was a tremendous success and so it was no shock to find the Media Centre in Repino so accommodating with a darts board, ten-pin bowling and pool tables laid on for the press.

Not just that but a daily darts shoot-out was organised between specific players and journalists, an event enjoyed by all parties throughout and beamed out on Sky Sports News.

One day, Jamie Vardy even asked the Guardian chief football writer if he could have a game of pool. Imagine that a few years earlier!

A week later, the same Vardy sat in on an interview with his then Leicester team-mate Harry Maguire asking him the immortal question: “So exactly how many inches is the circumference of your head?”

(Like many similar interviews, Maguire was sat on a four-piece sofa with his interviews on either side and Vardy spent 20 minutes perched on the arm of a cushioned chair with journalists on guard in case he lost his balance!)

He wasn’t alone in relaxing in company previously seen as hostile.

Jesse Lingard would arrive at the Media Centre grinning from ear to ear, Jordan Henderson often chatted to individuals about non-football matters, Jordan Pickford regularly asked me if Sunderland had signed anyone yet?

Tense-free off the pitch, this arrangement was reflected on it too.

Months of micro-planning had its desired effect with Southgate’s players enjoying their best tournament in 18 years.

Even after the heartache of semi-final defeat at the hands of Croatia, there was no going into a collective shell.

Harry Kane spent over ten minutes chatting in the mixed zone, most of his team-mates stopped when asked if they would spare a few minutes.

Southgate, who will surely be offered a job with the diplomatic service on leaving football, has carried on in similar fashion since that summer of love.

His words are measured yet have the gravitas of a man who carries the burden of his job with increasing ease.

Southgate’s character may be the polar opposite of those who boo the national team for ‘taking the knee” but while his message is strong and unequivocal, it stops short of offending the miscreants or festering division.

England go into these Euros, united and at ease with themselves.

Those who don’t necessarily want success ‘For Queen And Country’ will be disappointed if they fail for one simple reason.

Because a highly likeable group of players are led by a thoroughly decent man.