Areverent, nervous hush had descended across the entire stadium and England’s progression in a major tournament was once again going to be decided from 12 yards. The camera cuts to Gareth Southgate. Was this going to be the moment England banished those penalty nightmares and write a new bold chapter of success via the melodrama of the penalty shootout?
The ball is placed, ten backward steps are taken. There is no pause, flitting from rewind to fast-forward all in one movement, and a clean if somewhat soft connection is made. The ball is sent just left of centre; the goalkeeper moves across and easily makes the save. Disbelief mixed with realisation flashes across the eyes, before Gareth Southgate puffs out his cheeks, puts his hands on his hips, bows his head, and makes the long disconsolate walk back to his teammates on the halfway line.
The England team in the 1990s was defined by dramatic penalty shootout exits, defeat in World Cups to West Germany in 1990 and Argentina in 199, bookending what was the most heartbreaking of all: defeat to Germany at Wembley in the 1996 European Championship semi-final.
The current England manager was the man who put up his hand as the sixth penalty taker; the unenviable position of being the first man to embrace sudden death knowing that all the best have gone before you. Missing such a crucial spot-kick would have crushed lesser men, but Gareth Southgate was a leader of men while still just a boy.
Southgate served Crystal Palace and Aston Villa with distinction across the 90s. Not for the man who joined the Selhurst Park club in 1988 were the Spice Boys, New Labour or Cool Britannia distractions which seemed to befall talented young English players in the decade that saw the rebirth of domestic football.
Upon his arrival, Southgate’s talents and maturity were instantly recognised and utilised by youth team manager Alan Smith, instantly making him captain of the Palace side. The future England centre-back played over 100 games for the reserve team from the age of 17. His leadership qualities were developing rapidly, guiding peers including Ian Wright, Geoff Thomas and Mark Bright.
Former youth team graduate and teammate Simon Osborne recalls that Southgate had “an inner steel and calmness about him.” Always professional and dedicated to his cause, Southgate’s intelligence and articulation shone through. Former Palace Coach Wally Downes gave Southgate the moniker “Nord” after the It’ll Be Alright On The Night host Denis Norden, in honour of his “precise way of speaking and enunciation of words.” This well-spoken, intelligent leader was given his first-team debut just as the decade was beginning, Steve Coppell blooding the youngster in a League Cup tie in October 1990.
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By the April of his debut season, Southgate was in the starting line-up to face Liverpool. Coppell was adept at handling his young protégé and protected Southgate by playing him at right-back while he learned his trade amongst senior professionals in one of the most physical leagues in the world.
The 1991/92 season saw Southgate establish himself in the Palace first team, making 39 appearances across all competitions. Recognising Southgate’s ability and versatility, Coppell employed the right-back at centre-half and centre-midfield at various points throughout the season.
Relegation in the Premier League’s inaugural season followed in 1992/93 and Southgate’s former youth team coach Smith replaced Coppell. By the November of Palace’s quest to return to the top flight, Smith had made Southgate captain of the first team at just 23. Once again, surrounded by more experienced senior professionals, he was the man identified to lead the side.
Playing the entire season in midfield, Southgate led the side by example, featuring in every league game and contributing a respectable nine goals, making the captain Palace’s second-highest goalscorer in a championship-winning return to the Premier League. He remains Palace’s youngest ever promotion-winning captain.
The 1994/95 season would be Southgate’s final campaign with Palace, and it would prove to be a war of attrition. They made the semi-finals of both domestic cup competitions, losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup and Liverpool in the League Cup. The Premier League was still in the process of streamlining itself to 20 teams, so a total of 42 Premier League games meant that Palace played 57 games during the season. In an emotional and physically draining season that would end in the triple heartbreak of two semi-final defeats and a dramatic relegation, Southgate played in every single game.
As the 1990s reached their mid-point, Southgate was starting to become a highly prized target. Following the misery of the previous season, Aston Villa made a then club-record £2.5m bid for the man who was also now starting to attract the attention of England manager Terry Venables in his preparation for Euro 96. With the bid accepted, much to the frustration of the Palace fans, Southgate would see out the remainder of the decade at Villa Park.
Following his arrival at Villa Park, Southgate was played at centre-half by Brian Little. He felt that Southgate could organise the entire team in front of him and provide a calmness at the back. The payback was almost instant. In Southgate’s debut season, Villa managed a respectable fourth-place finish in the Premier League, reached the FA Cup semi-final, but would go two steps better in the League Cup in winning the trophy.
Following on from Southgate’s most successful club season, he assembled with the rest of the England squad at Bisham Abbey as England hosted their first major championship since the 1966 World Cup. By the start of the tournament, Southgate had established himself as Terry Venables’ first-choice centre-half alongside Tony Adams.
He and the rest of the back four only conceded three goals in five games. The penalty shootout in the quarter-final against Spain was won after only four efforts. The identity of the sixth and subsequent penalty takers would remain a mystery, until that infamous semi-final. The crushing defeat against Germany and the perceived responsibility which was laid at the right foot of Southgate had no physical effects the following season. As for the psychological effects – only Southgate will know what he carried forward.
Another consistent league campaign with Southgate at the heart of the team saw Villa finish fifth and secure UEFA Cup qualification. However, the following season saw a managerial change with the little-known John Gregory taking over from Brian Little. He immediately installed Southgate as his captain: “He was a model professional,” said Gregory. “He was thorough in his preparation for games, always eating the right food and refuelling correctly. Gareth led by example on and off the pitch. He always showed great interest in the tactical side of football.”
For the remainder of the 90s, Villa, under the on-field leadership of Southgate, were a model of consistency, never finishing below seventh. The decade was completed with an FA Cup final appearance in 2000. Having already lost two FA Cups semis, Southgate’s anguished relationship with the competition would end in a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea.
His career would later take him to Middlesbrough, before that acknowledged professionalism and tactical insight would see the captain become the manager in 2006. An undistinguished spell as Middlesbrough’s manager gave no hint to his potential suitability for the national team job. However, after a four-year sabbatical, during which Southgate the student continued to learn about the game, the position of England under-21 manager was his.
Coinciding with the development of St George’s Park and the FA’s introduction of its DNA coaching philosophy, Southgate has been at the forefront of English football’s coaching revolution, appointed as Head of Elite Development at the Football Association. Whilst his appointment as the England manager may have come as a surprise to many, for those who crossed paths with Southgate the player across the 1990s, it was a destiny that always seemed to be his, and no less than his life’s work seemed to deserve.