Gareth Southgate can still feel the hot flush of teenage embarrassment. It was his first day as a Crystal Palace apprentice and he had made the socially fatal error of turning up in smart clothes – school shirt and trousers, to be precise – only to find that the rest of his year group were in jeans or tracksuits.
“It felt like a disaster before I’d even started,” the England manager says. “All my peers seemed so much more streetwise and I was just this kid from the suburbs with goofy teeth. Nothing about me was cool and I felt like I’d never fit in.”
It was no fun for Southgate. The training was tougher than he had been used to as a schoolboy, the pressure was higher, the environment ferociously competitive. His team were losing games and they were conceding a lot of goals. He goes so far as to say that he hated it. Then he hit rock bottom.
“The coach, Alan Smith, called me in for a chat and just spoke his mind,” Southgate says. “He said: ‘You’re a lovely bloke, Gareth, but as a footballer you’ve got no chance. If I were you, I’d think about becoming a travel agent.’
“I realised later that Alan wasn’t really letting me go. He was just looking for a reaction. It was his way of waking me up to the fact that I needed to make some serious changes to my outlook if I was going to survive. But at the time, I left and just cried my eyes out.”
Southgate recalls the stories in his new book, Anything Is Possible: Be Brave, Be Kind & Follow Your Dreams, which explores the development of his mindset over the course of a journey from “skinny, introverted teenager” to playing for and managing his country. He has written it to inspire young people, to show them how to turn dreams into reality, to reassure them that they are not alone in feeling self-doubt or confusion.
Southgate did make changes after the tête-à-tête with Smith – which he describes as a turning point in his life. It was an example of him responding to what he calls a negative driver, the determination to prove somebody wrong, and there have been a fair few of those.
He was released at 13 by Southampton and as a young manager at Middlesbrough he would be sacked soon after the club’s relegation from the Premier League in 2009. Most famously, there was the missed penalty for England in the Euro 96 semi-final shootout defeat against Germany.
Southgate’s analytical mind is stamped across the pages of the book; his meticulousness, his love of clarity and process. He offers tips and life lessons – focus on what you can control, do not compare yourself with others, dare to try even if it means slipping up. The tone is easy, upbeat and the messages are drummed home gently, always linking to one and other.
It would be a mistake to think Southgate does not have an inner steel. It is how he has been able to withstand so much. But what shines through is the warmth and inclusivity of his leadership style. It is impossible to imagine him telling a first-year scholar that he would be better off booking holidays for people and he embraces sensitivity over old-school ranting.
It comes back to kindness, a virtue that can seem almost quaint in the aggressive world that Southgate inhabits, one coloured by extreme reactions and social media poison. But by standing up for what he believes in and how he would like to be treated, Southgate shows a rare form of courage.
It is one he believes can create an environment for his England players to bond and express themselves and that he hopes will drive them to glory at the European Championship next year.
Being kind towards others doesn’t mean we lack toughness
“Being kind towards others doesn’t mean we lack toughness,” Southgate says. “It’s easy to think that someone with good manners and a positive attitude might lack that winning drive but the reality couldn’t be more different. If anything, all the qualities linked to being kind come from an inner confidence. They demonstrate that we’re not afraid of what others think if we stop to offer help or show respect for people or places instead of playing for laughs.”
Southgate has reached the point where he has the courage of his convictions, but it has not happened overnight. When he missed the penalty against Germany, it was because he had worried about what might go wrong, instead of preparing technically and mentally for what could go right.
Southgate wants children and young adults, with whom he works in his role as an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust, to focus on positive drivers and step out of their comfort zones as he did in 2016 when he accepted the England job. A few months earlier, he had turned it down because, after Euro 96 and being dismissed at Middlesbrough, he did not want to get hurt again.
Before the departure of Sam Allardyce offered Southgate a second shot at the post, he remembers watching Chris Coleman, the Wales manager and a former Palace teammate of his, give a victorious post-match interview. Like Southgate, Coleman’s confidence had been dented by a dismissal at club level.
“And yet he’d found the courage to step up and steer a national team to success,” Southgate says. “When asked by the interviewer for his advice to anyone in a similar situation, Chris spelled it out very simply: Don’t be frightened of going for things in life. It felt like he was talking directly to me.
“Some call managing England ‘the impossible job’ and I had fallen into that way of thinking. I’d failed to consider the opportunities such an honour presented. It had taken watching that interview with an old friend for me to realise this.
“If I think about the worst thing that could have happened [about taking the England job], I now know the answer. Had I ruled myself out again, I would have never stopped wondering what might have been.”