My pal Gareth Southgate is a bright, astute, tactful man but with a restless, ruthless urge | Clive Tyldesley

In this edited extract from his new book, the ITV commentator says the best England manager of the 17 he has known is the only one who was invited to his wedding – ‘so maybe I am biased’

Gareth Southgate is the best man for the England manager’s job. I have met 17 of the people that have taken charge of my country’s national football team and come to know 11 of them reasonably well. Of all the incumbents, I believe Gareth is the best man for that job.

I can’t tell you that he is the best coach or the best tactician or the best motivator. I am talking about the man. The bright, astute, tactful, thorough, contemporary man. Of those 17 managers and interim coaches, only one was invited to my wedding. Gareth. So maybe I am biased.

The bad news for my good friend in the hottest seat of all is that it never ends well for the England manager. Never. The job comes complete with a suicide pill.

All I can be sure of is that he won’t leave the job because he was entrapped by a fake sheikh or had expressed his views on the afterlife or become embroiled in a high court fraud case or been seduced by a Football Association PA. If the Sun ever revealed that Gareth once stole a Crunchie bar from the school tuck shop, I’d be shocked and horrified. His sheer decency may just have saved the England manager’s job from itself.

Gareth Southgate at the National Football Museum in 2019, looking at a display showing the waistcoat worn at the 2018 World Cup in Russia
Gareth Southgate at the National Football Museum in 2019, looking at a display showing the waistcoat worn at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Photograph: Eddie Keogh for The FA/Rex/Shutterstock

The charge sheet attached to the position looks more like a catalogue of crimes and misdemeanours levelled at the manager of a Mafia strip club than a football manager. It inevitably raises questions of the people that appointed his predecessors. Gareth rather fell into the job. He wasn’t really appointed. Perhaps that’s why he’s such a good fit.

Not for him the covert drive through the Oxfordshire countryside behind the cloak of blacked-out Mercedes windows to clandestine talks with FA head-hunters in a secluded stately manor house. His interviews were conducted before 80,000-strong panels at Wembley Stadium. A very public trial. An X Factor audition.

Promoted from coach of the under-21s team in 2016 and given four games to see if he could handle yet another national emergency, he steered the senior team to a World Cup semi-final within two years. Maybe handling emergencies should be the future template for selection. England are certainly experts at creating them.

In my lifetime we’ve had the patriotic ones and the foreign ones, we’ve had the special ones and the safe ones. We’ve tried good cops and bad cops, popular choices and professional choices, veterans and rookies, turnips and Swedes. Now we’ve gone for the nice guy.

In the cold-hearted, cut-throat world of The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den there is no room for nice guys. Peter Jones wouldn’t let Gareth into the lift. But don’t be fooled by the shy, toothy grin. This England manager not only knows his mind, he uses it continually. He is as smart as his World Cup waistcoat.

If I were so brazen as to share with you the most shocking things that Gareth has said to me within the privacy of our friendship, they would not be poisonous put-downs of fellow managers or saucy secrets about boys being boys. It would be his bluntly forthright verdicts on players. No minced words, no veiled compliments. He knows exactly what he wants from the men in his charge and whether they can deliver it or not.

Realism is his chosen specialist subject. Just about the first thing he said to me on his hero’s return from the World Cup in Russia was: “We are definitely not the fourth best team in the world.” Within a year, seven or eight of the players that took part in the semi against Croatia in Moscow had been cut from the team or the squad. Nice.

Not for ever. Nothing is for ever when you are a realist. Gareth is single-minded enough to show any player the door if he thinks there are better alternatives, but he rarely shuts that door behind them.

When only 20% of the players regularly selected by England’s most successful club sides are English, you are not quite at the stage where you can be leaving out Jimmy Greaves or Paul Gascoigne, but Gareth is always looking forward rather than back with his team and squad selections. He has named some of the youngest teams in modern England history. He always wants to know what happens next. A measured man but with a restless, ruthless urge. When you think about it, there are no nice centre-backs, are there?

Joe Cole scores against Sweden at the 2006 World Cup
Gareth Southgate was Clive Tyldesley’s co-commentator when Joe Cole scored his stunning goal against Sweden at the 2006 World Cup. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Between being a centre-back and England manager, Gareth was a television pundit. At the 2006 World Cup, he became my regular co-commentator. Watch Joe Cole’s volley against Sweden and listen. He was going to be my running mate four years later but ITV needed him in a studio in South Africa and our partnership was prematurely ended. What might have been. He can communicate. And that has given him a head start over several of his predecessors.

I confess I became so disheartened by the inability of true English football lovers like Graham Taylor and Kevin Keegan to make the earth move for me that I rather welcomed the appointment of an outsider in 2000. I thought a different accent, a different angle might just demystify the job. In truth, Sven-Göran Eriksson wooed Nancy and Ulrika rather more than he beguiled me. But we’ll always have Munich.

His English is an awful lot better than my Swedish but it soon developed a comedic ring to my ears. As Gareth himself said of Eriksson’s half-time address during the 2002 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil: “We needed Churchill but we got Iain Duncan-Smith.”

For me, Sven always brought to mind Peter Sellers’ character Chauncey Gardiner in Being There. A man whose smiling silences convinced many into believing that he knew more than he was saying. Management always seemed to be happening to him, rather than by him. It all ended in smears.

Gareth Southgate, David Seaman and David Beckham watch Sven-Göran Eriksson talk to Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street on the day the Swede had named his 2002 World Cup squad
Gareth Southgate (top left), David Seaman (top centre) and David Beckham watch Sven-Göran Eriksson talk to Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street on the day the Swede had named his 2002 World Cup squad. Photograph: Peter J Jordan/PA

One glimpse of the altar was enough for Phil Scolari to flee the aisle and, after Steve McClaren was caught in a downpour, the FA opted for a man with even less mastery of the English language than Eriksson or Scolari (or indeed McClaren) in the shape of the particularly unsmiling Fabio Capello. The antidote to a manager who called the players by their nicknames was one who couldn’t say their names at all. Or even wanted to. The England job was stumbling from parody to parody.

Not For Me, Clive. Stories from the voice of football by Clive Tyldesley
Not For Me, Clive. Stories from the voice of football by Clive Tyldesley Photograph: No credit

International football is full of successful coaches foreign to the players they are in charge of. Hired hands with no emotional baggage that are just doing their next job. They don’t sing the anthem or kiss the badge. They are not only immune to any charges of favouring one club ahead of another, but they are also deaf to the white noise that swirls around the white shirt from media and public alike. On the evidence of all we saw from Eriksson and Capello, I was mistaken to believe that model could work for England.

We are too emotionally attached to our national side to offer it up for adoption. It is in our blood so we want it to be in the boss’s blood, too.

Not For Me, Clive: Stories from the Voice of Football by Clive Tyldesley is published by Headline (available now, RRP £20.00)

Clive Tyldesley

The GuardianTramp

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