In his early days as a young footballer at Crystal Palace in the late 1980s, Gareth Southgate had to toughen up in a “sink-or-swim environment”, honing the inner steel which serves him so well as England manager. EURO2020.com hears from those who were there at the start of Southgate’s footballing journey.
Alan Smith was Southgate’s youth-team manager at Crystal Palace and the man who later made him first-team captain at the Eagles in 1993.
“In the early stages it was 50-50 whether we kept him or not. We played in one particular game we lost quite heavily. He was captain and Gareth was shaking hands with the opposition but I was in no mood for pleasantries and when he came in, I said, ‘Concentrate on your game, not looking after the opposition’.
The next day I called him in and said, ‘You’ve got all the skills of communication but have you really got the heart to be a professional footballer? If you haven’t, I suggest you become a travel agent, you’d be quite good at that.’
He got a bit tearful. He was a nice lad but he needed that hardness we see today. [Palace] was a bearpit, very strong characters, a lot of street fighters, a South London club with a South London mentality, whereas Gareth didn’t quite fit into that. He wasn’t stuck up in any way but to get him to the level I thought he could be, he really needed to toughen up. From that day on it was, ‘I’m going to look after myself a bit more’.
Gary O’Reilly was a senior player at Selhurst Park who would drive the teenage Southgate into training.
I know Alan Smith told Gareth, ‘Go and be a travel agent’. No one had ever spoken to Gareth like this. He was a smart kid in class and he was a superb athlete so this really hit him hard. Back in the car you could see he was visibly upset and I explained to him, ‘You’re being tested’.
Gareth just went on an exponential climb in terms of his talent. I’d take him into training and I’d talk and he was always keen to learn and listen, and you saw him as an individual grow and as a footballer grow. He was inquisitive, he’d remark about things and there was an ability to absorb information, to digest it, to analyse it, to break it down.
Also, the steel was there – his inner steel. He just didn’t carry it around on show. You’ve got Ian Wright, Andy Gray, Alan Pardew – big characters. Gareth was a smart boy and he could cope.
Southgate was just 23 when, as Palace captain, he led the South London club back to the top flight of English football in 1994 as Smith recalls.
He had all the qualities I see now. He was quiet, he led by example, he was playing in midfield in those days. If there was anything to say in the changing room, he’d say it. He was quite aggressive if we lost a game and he thought the team hadn’t performed properly.
If he didn’t agree with me on something he’d politely knock on the door and tell me he didn’t agree. He wasn’t a class goody-goody. He was very much his own man. I’ve always thought Gareth even back then was underestimated because he wasn’t brash in his attitude. It was a much more subtle approach but there was a coolness about him.
He can be quite isolated when he wants to, you don’t get into his inner sanctum very easily, you’d have to pass quite high standards to do it. His affable manner and politeness shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness.
Gaizka Mendieta recalls Southgate’s first steps as a manager at Middlesbrough in 2006
Gareth was key in that Middlesbrough team as a captain, looking out for everyone, trying to motivate and be close to all the players as a leader. He was similar when he became manager. He’s someone who really wants to be close to players, dialogue and talk like a sensible, reasonable person. He’s a perfect match for the national team.