Gareth Southgate’s greatest achievement as England manager wasn’t getting to a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years or a first major tournament in 55 years; these were simply byproducts.
It was creating an environment in which England’s players – younger and older, established and fringe, from elite clubs and relegation fighters – deeply enjoyed playing for their country.
For years the opposite was true. The managers were either too disciplined or not disciplined enough. Tournament camps either had too many distractions or not enough. There were cliques between star players from star clubs.
Too many players barely grinned and bore it, waiting to return to the sanctity of club life. Southgate changed that. He created an identity, but more importantly he created a haven. Let’s call it the Great Inflatable Unicorn culture of 2018 to 2021.
That was the greatest casualty of Tuesday evening at Molineux. Not the result, which was calamitous. Not the performance, which was shambolic. Not the mass rotation, which Southgate can probably never risk again because it went so badly. Not the in-game formation switch; same applies. The vitriol was genuinely shocking. To quote one supporter who leaned over a barrier in the Billy Wright stand, “F**k off Southgate you f**king w***er”.
This is not the end, because there is no easy replacement, there are only two games until the World Cup and Southgate has credit in the bank through his achievement in Russia and last summer.
But it did feel like the beginning of the end and, more importantly, the definitive, angry, abusive end of the longest honeymoon period any modern England manager has enjoyed. On Talksport after the game, one caller demanded Harry Redknapp to come in now. The next called for Diego Simeone assisted by Graham Potter. Welcome to silly season.
Over the last half century, this job has rarely been a marriage; just a protracted divorce of differing lengths according to who was the groom. Southgate might be Googling the number for Relate. It would be vaguely amusing if he did lose his job now. In 20 years we might reflect that an England manager was in charge for two tournaments, reaching a semi-final and a final, and was then forced out after a defeat to Hungary.
The accusations against Southgate are thus: he is a negative manager. That’s despite England being the highest scorers in the knockout stages of a major tournament 11 months ago, with nine goals in four games. He merely benefitted from easy draws – that’s despite beating Germany 2-0, outplaying a Denmark side that looked like potential winners and ignores that England had been eliminated by Iceland and Costa Rica from their two previous tournaments before him.
That he sticks with his favourites – as if every international manager doesn’t have them and as if Southgate didn’t pick the second youngest squad at World Cup 2018 and the second youngest squad at Euro 2020. That he benefited from playing at home last summer – as if Wembley hadn’t hamstrung and haunted players and managers before him. That the mood has changed around England – perhaps that is true now. But before Tuesday, England had lost one of their last 25 matches.
Personally, I think Southgate has been a little shafted here. There is no defending Tuesday night in Wolverhampton; England were a rabble by the end and the body language after the second, third and fourth goals was abject.
But the vagaries of a winter World Cup meant that he has no pre-tournament friendlies and so felt Hungary was the best chance to make sweeping changes over this international break with a group of players desperately in need of a break.
Having two teams in the group who have not qualified for the World Cup meant that Italy and Hungary had more to play for. England’s best result, a draw away in Germany, is easily forgotten.
The Nations League – or at least this edition of it – is unhelpful too. Southgate surely made a mistake in deeming it unimportant other than as World Cup preparation, but this is an odd competition in which positive results (a draw away in Germany, say) are viewed as meaningless but setbacks are heralded as proof of decay. It also means that Southgate has no chance to ease players into the World Cup; he cannot afford to do anything but pick his best team against Germany and Italy in September in an attempt to shift the mood.
This is salvageable. Southgate’s strategy as England manager has been to protect the players. He pinned all the blame for this international break on himself to extend that protection.
The World Cup is five months away and England have recovered from poor Nations League performances before. In 2020 they took one point from two games against Denmark and lost away in Belgium. They reached the final of a tournament the next summer.
The positive spin – even if you have to squint to see it – is that it is England’s progress under Southgate that has created the pressure. No longer is a quarter-final appearance viewed as acceptable.
But it does not matter what I or any other writer thinks. The England job is judged by democracy. The abuse England’s players and Southgate received – jeered at 0-0 when England passed the ball, outright mutiny in the last 20 minutes, booed by two stands when they tried to applaud the supporters apologetically after the game, lambasted on radio stations by a parade of irate callers – sticks to and suffocates them like a soupy smog.
Southgate is fighting to control the toxic maelstrom that has engulfed almost every manager before him. He has entered the most difficult stage of the most difficult job, where success is down to the players and stumbles are purely down to him. That’s the problem with taking your team to meet its public: they’re liable to tell you exactly what they think.