To mark St. George's Day, read our feature interview with England manager Gareth Southgate, who discusses the 2018 World Cup and EFL's importance to the national team.
The summer of 2018 will live long in the memory for those associated with the England national team, but manager Gareth Southgate is determined to make sure his side’s World Cup success is just the opening chapter of a greater story. Ryan Grant spoke to the man who brought international football – and waistcoats – back into fashion across the country, with a little help from the EFL.
It’s been 32 years since a fresh-faced Gareth Southgate joined the youth set-up at Crystal Palace.
While the journey that followed - one which culminated in his appointment as England manager in November 2016 - is now widely known, it has not been without its setbacks.
Released by Southampton as a schoolboy and overlooked by a series of other Clubs, Southgate’s pathway to success as a player wasn’t always straightforward. “One thing is for sure, all footballers will suffer rejection at some point,” he says with a certitude that has come both from years of personal experience and learning.
“From 2011, I spent years working on youth development,” he adds. “I was part of the review after the 2010 World Cup and then started to help implement some of the changes in formats to the game, the switch to 5v5, 7v7, 9v9, those sorts of things. It’s given me a really good understanding of player development and what that looks like in our country and elsewhere, as well as some of the factors that lead to players becoming successful.
“I think it’s clear when you look at the respective pathways of the players that were in our squad in 2018 that the development of every player is different. There’s no set route, it doesn’t have to be straight into the first team or everyone out on loan.”
As many as 20 of the 23 chosen by Southgate to represent England at the World Cup either came through an EFL club academy or made their debut in an EFL competition. And, for a while, it looked as though England would reach the Final. Kieran Trippier’s stunning free-kick put the Three Lions ahead in their Semi-Final against Croatia, as the defender curled an effort over the wall and beyond Danijel Subašić to spark scenes of celebrations in the stands in Moscow, as well as in homes, pubs and fanparks back at home.
His is a clear example of the advantages that getting early experience of senior football at club level can bring, advantages which Southgate believes can be crucial.
“If you look at some of the players from that World Cup, just the back players in fact, Kieran being one of them, you also have Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Ashley Young, Jordan Pickford – they all came through the EFL and that was a significant part of their learning and becoming established,” he explains.
“There’s so much at stake for Clubs and players in the EFL; the reward for success and pain of failure is also high. When you’re looking at what helps young players develop, having consequences of winning and losing is one of the big parts of playing under pressure.”
It's clear that playing in the Sky Bet Championship, League One and League Two is acting as a strong springboard.
“That’s the big shift from playing schoolboy football to playing football that really counts and matters,” Southgate adds. “You have to have an understanding of that as a young player, as football shifts from being something you just did for fun to a job.
“I think there are always different challenges and we’ve had a period where, in the Premier League, the number of qualified English players has reduced over the last 10 years. At the same time, we’ve had significantly better technical players coming through our academies and success at junior level, which tells me that the quality of players coming through is there. They need opportunities to play and some of those guys have played this year in the EFL, and that will be a significant step for them in their individual development.”
In 2018/19, the EFL Trophy saw an impressive rise in the number of debuts handed to young English players. More and more budding stars are being given an opportunity by Clubs in EFL competitions like these, and it all adds up to what is an already well-populated talent pool in England, one that will continue to benefit EFL Clubs and the national team alike.
So, just how important is the Clubs’ part as a cog in the wheel?
“The Clubs have the most significant role, really, because they work with the players every day and have the responsibility to develop those players,” Southgate says, having managed at club level for three years between 2006 and 2009.
“There are some brilliant people at Clubs and academies up and down the country that are doing a lot of very good work, so I think that for any club the thrill of getting a player into the first team gives everyone energy and belief in their programmes.
“We just have to monitor when we feel players are ready to handle the step up and whether it’s the right thing for them as well as the team. We have a responsibility to manage that process and give those players the right challenge as they come through the pathway; if the games are too easy for them, they need to move up the age groups, but we don’t want them to move up if they aren’t going to play regularly. For any development programme, you have to find the right balance in that area.”
Many may have struggled to recover from the early setback of being released from a club, but Southgate went on to become Palace captain at the tender age of just 22. In fact, he wore the armband of all three professional Clubs he played for. It’s that never-say-die mentality which has always served him well, be it on the pitch or the touchline, and it’s a side of the game the man himself views as being important to the development of young players.
“Developing mentally as well as physically, it’s crucial. The very best players have resilience, they recover well from setbacks, they’re able to perform under intense spotlight and expectation,” he says. “There will be physical and technical elements, but the difference between the very best and the rest is the mentality and psychology, that’s the bit that drives them every day to improve and look after themselves physically. It means you don’t hide when the going is tough, and that you take the lead when your team needs you.
“We want to continually be in those latter stages of competitions because that’s what we talked about for our junior, men’s and women’s teams when I first came here. We want to be knocking on the door all the time, to be in the matches that matter. At junior level, we managed to turn a couple of those into trophies and that has to be our ultimate aim; winning things with England. We want to be the number one team in the world but we’re not quite there yet; it’s nice to have improved, but there’s a hunger to keep getting better.”
It’s evident then that the view for Southgate and the national team is very much long-term, with youth development at the heart of it all. And, with EFL Clubs doing a fine job of nurturing their cubs, it can only serve to help the Three Lions. Fittingly, the parting message from the England manager ties the lot together – it’s time to celebrate successes, learn from disappointments and build for the future; sound advice for any aspiring player.
“I think we’ve shown that young players can come into the senior team and flourish,” he says proudly. “Winning at junior international level has historically been a good indicator that countries can have a good period; the quality coming through and the belief they have because of their experiences, it’s beyond where we’ve been for a few years. Our job now is to back that up. None of us were happy on the plane home from the World Cup in 2018, and that had to be the mentality. We have to make sure that’s just part of the journey for us, and not the end of it.”
This feature originally appeared in the summer 2019 edition of the EFL magazine and was updated on 21 April 2020.