BURTON-ON-TRENT, England — Gareth Southgate mentions the letter almost as an aside. It had arrived at his home, out in the Yorkshire countryside. He does not go into detail about its contents beyond the fact that it was not exactly constructive feedback. It was best described, he said, as a “very strange letter about race.”
A few years ago, perhaps, the 52-year-old Southgate would have found it unsettling: not just the views it espoused but also the violation of his privacy, the threat implicit in an unsolicited piece of mail landing on his family’s doorstep. It is not, though, the first correspondence along those lines that he has received. Repeated exposure has thickened his skin.
Most of the time, the letters come to his office at St. George’s Park, the sprawling complex just outside the town of Burton that serves as the headquarters of England’s various national teams. They are, as a rule, entirely anonymous: no name, no return address. They are often about his views on racial equality, or his support for his players taking the knee before games, but not exclusively. His stance on lockdowns also attracted a steady volume of mail. His call for people to get their coronavirus vaccines prompted a torrent. Little of it was complimentary.
Southgate did not intend, when he was hurriedly installed as England’s manager in September 2016, to make his voice heard on any of these issues. Soft-spoken and cerebral, he hardly has the air of a polemicist.
Besides, the experiences of his predecessors taught him that there were already many ways to fail as the England manager: not qualifying for tournaments; qualifying for but not winning tournaments; refusing to change your captain; using an umbrella; drinking a pint of wine. The easy route, he knew, would be to “stick to football.”
He eschewed it only because he felt he did not have a choice.
“Some of these issues have found us,” he said. “We had players racially abused in Bulgaria. It was important we took a stand. I’ve chosen to step into others.”
He knows, though, that his approach has come at a cost. “Some fans won’t go with you on results,” he said. “You have some who won’t go with you on quality of performance.” That is the same deal as the one all of his forerunners took; those are the terms and conditions of the job.
The difference, as Southgate put it, is that “now you have a third group”: the letter writers and the anonymous correspondents who object not so much to the team he puts out or the way it plays but to who he is and what he thinks.
The England manager is supposed to be a unifying national figure, someone for the country to rally around in pursuit of a shared ambition. The problem, as Southgate has found, is that England is no longer a place that is easily unified on anything.
“I have probably alienated certain fans,” he said. “I am comfortable with that.”
The End of the Affair
The first and greatest swell of England’s love affair with Southgate came in that fervid summer of 2018, as he led a young and approachable national team to the cusp of a World Cup final. It was strange, and it was intense: He was pitched as the next prime minister, and he single-handedly revived the waistcoat.
The reprise, three years later, was only a touch more knowing: Southgate was serenaded with a reworked version of Atomic Kitten’s “Whole Again” as England made the final of the European Championship on home soil. The Times of London ran a feature headlined: “How to Be a Gareth: Why Decent Blokes Are Hot.”
“There are very few public figures who are widely seen as unifying and trusted,” said Luke Tryl, the United Kingdom director at the research group More in Common. “It’s generally just people like David Attenborough.” On the eve of the European Championship last year, Tryl said, polling put Southgate in a similar bracket.
No more than 18 months later, the contrast is stark. England might have qualified with ease for Qatar. It might go into the World Cup on the back of appearances in the semifinal and final of its last two major tournaments. It might be regarded by Lionel Messi, no less, as one of the half dozen favorites to lift the trophy next month. But that feeling of unity is a distant memory.
Last month, England was relegated from its Nations League group, having failed to win a single game. Southgate’s team was jeered by its own fans in a home defeat to Hungary and in a loss to Italy in Milan. Southgate has been accused of inhibiting his rich array of attacking talent — Harry Kane, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka — through an excessive desire for caution, wasting a golden generation.
“I know what the narrative is around how we set the team up,” Southgate said. “But the funny thing is I don’t remember any of this around the 2018 World Cup. Or when we played Germany, Ukraine and Denmark” — in Euro 2020 — “people weren’t saying it wasn’t good to watch.”
Southgate traces the roots of that disaffection to England’s first few games after lockdown, in September 2020, a pair of bleak, silent Nations League games against Iceland and Denmark.
“It was a bizarre period,” he said. “The games were behind closed doors. We were living in a bubble, being tested every second. It was a miserable experience. Certain players weren’t there. Others, we had to manage their minutes. They were almost preseason games, but all hell broke loose around the style of play. I don’t think we’ve shaken that off.”
There is, though, an alternative timeline. England’s final tuneup games for the European Championship the following summer were staged in the northern town of Middlesbrough. It was the first time Southgate’s team had played in front of fans since the start of the pandemic, and since the protests that followed the killing in the United States of a Black man, George Floyd, by the police.
When his players took the knee before kickoff in the first game, against Austria, an audible proportion of the crowd booed. Southgate admitted, afterward, that he had been “disappointed” at the response. But the players continued to kneel: Southgate confirmed Sunday in Doha that they would kneel again on Monday before playing Iran.
“I think we have got a situation where some people seem to think it is a political stand that they don’t agree with,” he said. “That is not the reason we are doing it.”
The perception that international management is some sort of part-time gig — a few games a year, plenty of time to walk the dogs — grates on Southgate. “There isn’t a morning that I don’t wake up thinking immediately about what needs to be done,” he said.
His days tend to end with a late-night phone call with his assistant, Steve Holland. “You are constantly thinking about how we play, who we pick,” he said. “It never stops, really.”
On that subject, Southgate knows he cannot win. In the weeks and months before his team set off for the World Cup, he was chided for being too loyal to some players and insufficiently indulgent of others. Why was he still picking Harry Maguire? Why did he not build his team around Trent Alexander-Arnold? What was the precise location of James Maddison?
“Selection will always divide fans, whatever the sport,” he said. “People see their own player in a certain light. We can’t look at whether the last couple of performances have been good or bad. We need to think over a longer period of time. What does our data tell us? What have we seen? How are they playing in bigger games, against better opponents, under real pressure? It is a sifting process.”
His task, as he sees it, has been to remain steady in a world prone to volatility. He has become increasingly careful, he said, about the media he consumes, limiting his exposure to the frenzied, protean debates over who should be on his team.
But Southgate has to be just as cautious “with the front pages as the back.” In England, it is not just on the subject of who should be his first-choice right back that there is, as he put it, “lots of polar opinions, and not a lot of room for nuance.”
Fielding questions unrelated to his team and his sport has, though, become a hazard of his job. In his first few interviews as England manager, he noticed that there were “not many questions about football.” His tenure has been marked not only by Covid and the Black Lives Matter moment but by the enduring sore of the Qatar World Cup.
On each topic, he has done his best to pick his path carefully. He admitted that he has, for example, found the issue of Qatar “overwhelming.”
“This is a country being criticized internally for modernizing too fast,” he said. “We have to be respectful of other cultures. It is complicated. I can’t bounce up and down in public and expect people to get round a table.” Even so, on that and all of the other subjects he has confronted, he believes he has been “more active” than he might have imagined. “I can’t be a loose cannon,” he said. “But I recognize my responsibility.”
That approach, he knows, may have made his job harder. Tryl’s research indicates that, unlike in the United States, England does not contain what are known as stacked identities: an individual’s stance on Brexit is not a reliable indicator, for example, of their perception of lockdowns or vaccination, let alone issues like abortion or universal health care, where there is broad social consensus.
“There is a lot of overlap and divergence,” Tryl said. The perception, though, is different. “Half the country think we are more divided than we have ever been,” he said, and that perception itself has a power.
Southgate, no matter how studiously he has tried to stifle rather than spark controversy, has not been able to escape it. In a country that defines itself by division, even trying to find nuance necessitates either taking, or being assigned, a side — and dealing with the consequences.
“I could have ducked it all,” Southgate said. “But whenever this is finished, I want to be able to look back and say I stood for what I believed.”