The first thing to say is that Gareth Southgate has not outstayed his welcome. This honourable, dignified, intelligent coach is not to blame for England’s latest heartbreaking World Cup defeat. There can no be recriminations, no anger, no calls for root-and-branch reform; all there is, in the cold light of day, is the bitterness of knowing that England went toe to toe with the world champions, used the right tactics and came up short only because Harry Kane’s nerve betrayed him at the worst possible moment.
It hurts. “Maybe it was because England were very good,” Didier Deschamps said when he was asked why France spent so much of the game on the back foot. The France coach was under no illusions. Deschamps knew how close England had run the defending champions. Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham were irrepressible in attack, Declan Rice outstanding in midfield, Kyle Walker tireless against Kylian Mbappé. This was different from the typical England exit, a world apart from the defeats by Croatia in 2018 and Italy in the Euro 2020 final, and only the most blinkered of Southgate’s critics could possibly try to take this performance apart.
But it is not easy to be rational after watching England’s hopes of winning the World Cup sail away when Kane’s second penalty flew over the crossbar. Later, when Southgate appeared for his post‑match performance, he looked and sounded close to tears. “To go again takes a lot of energy,” the 52‑year‑old said as thoughts turned to his future. “You have to make sure you are ready for that.”
Southgate sounded ready to walk away. He has done this for six years and has experienced three crushing disappointments. The Football Association does not want him to go, particularly as there is no obvious successor, but how much does Southgate have left in the tank? Is it really fair to expect him to still be in charge when Euro 2024 qualifying begins in March? Maybe it is time for a return to club football.
Southgate, whose contract runs until December 2024, spoke about not wanting to outstay his welcome after the penalty shootout defeat in the Euro 2020 final. Patience has run thin since then; the grumbling grew during England’s dismal Nations League campaign. Yet it is to be hoped that Southgate ignores the noise. He should listen to Kane, Rice and Harry Maguire calling for him to stay. These players love Southgate. There is a reason the mood around the camp was so positive throughout the tournament and, once the dust has settled, the FA will be desperate for Southgate to realise that his maturing side’s efforts against France are proof that he can lead them to glory at the Euros.
Of course there will be people waiting to dismiss Southgate as a mere FA suit. Only, two things can be true at once. Southgate is good at dealing with difficult questions away from football. He is also England’s best manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. Just remember where they were after defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016 was followed by the humiliation of Sam Allardyce’s pint of wine. The shirt could not have weighed more heavily.
Southgate changed everything. He stripped away the fear of playing for England but he also lifted an underperforming team. The idea that he is a lucky coach who always enjoyed easy draws is the usual English arrogance. In 2018 Southgate went to the World Cup with a game but callow squad. England, who had not won a knockout game since 2006, had no divine right to reach the last four by beating Colombia and Sweden.
That they exceeded expectations was down to Southgate covering up his side’s weaknesses by switching to three at the back and focusing on set pieces; that their limitations were eventually exposed by Croatia was no great surprise.
Of course Southgate could have reacted quicker to Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic taking control for Croatia. He has made mistakes. At Euro 2020 he took England to their first final in 55 years, but he was slow to respond to Italy’s fightback. Southgate, who had reverted to a back five, should have been bolder. Bringing on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho just before the shootout was an error.
Equally Southgate was a kick away from winning the European Championship. Football is random in its cruelty. He is not perfect, but the tactical preparation he undertakes with his staff is part of a driven culture. England were ready for France. Southgate ensured they were not inferior. He coached them well. It is not his fault that Harry Maguire lost Olivier Giroud for the winner.
The counter is that Maguire should not have started after losing his place at Manchester United. But is there a better English centre‑back out there? Southgate tends to get the big calls right. He backed Raheem Sterling at the Euros but rightly dropped the winger here. The gamble of starting Saka instead of Rashford against Senegal paid off. More depth in attack has given Southgate more freedom. There is an idea that he has finally lifted the handbrake, allowing his players to express themselves, but the reality is the attack has improved mainly because the midfield has become more balanced. Too cautious? Only if you’ve paid no attention to England’s performances in Qatar.
This is the moment for Southgate to push on. Bellingham is 19. Saka is 21, Phil Foden is 22. Rice, Mason Mount and Reece James are 23. Aaron Ramsdale, 24, will push Jordan Pickford for the No 1 spot, and there is plenty of young talent waiting to burst on to the scene. This cycle is not done. Why walk away now?
The FA must hold on to him. Nobody is better qualified to lead this team. The two best English candidates, Eddie Howe and Graham Potter, are unavailable. There are whispers of Thomas Tuchel or Mauricio Pochettino, but the mere whiff of a celebrity appointment is a reminder of the excesses of the Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello eras, of an assumption the only thing missing is a sprinkling of magic from afar, and above all an attempt to cover up the failure to produce more homegrown coaches by throwing money at the problem.
It would go against the calm of the past six years. The FA has invested in St George’s Park, in developing coaches, and Southgate has been an integral part in the improvement in academies. Southgate was crucial before he became manager and he remains an asset now. He should not be asking us for more time. We should be begging him to stay.