In an era when you couldn’t catch a flight without Gazza, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman smashing the plane and being sick on your children, a personality like Southgate was, for many, as difficult to fathom as Terry Venables’ tax return.
But if Southgate seemed a misfit amongst the TFI 96 shenanigans of that particular England scene, he always looked a likely manager. Oddly, it has taken until now, as his England Under 21 side approach a European Championships where they are amongst the favourites to win, for him to get the hang of it.
A thoughtful, if slightly plodding centre back, Southgate made nearly 600 appearances for Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and finally Middlesbrough. Bearing this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that 50% of his career trophy cabinet is taken up by an Intertoto Cup winner’s medal and some deep sighs.
As well as a club career that perhaps should have been less beige, Southgate also picked up 57 caps for England, the high point being his presence for every minute of England’s nearly brilliant Euro 96 campaign.
Famously, the low point of his England career arrived at precisely the very end of the high point, as he slapped a penalty towards the German goal like a 100-year-old woman throwing a pillow at the cat she’s accidentally mistaken for Death.
It should have been a time for forgiveness and redemption. Instead it became a time for yakking about on the telly with fellow penalty fluffers Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce in an ill-advised attempt to flog pizzas on the back of a borderline national tragedy.
Even his inevitable move into management wasn’t the easy, natural transformation we’d all assumed it would be. A meek relegation from the Premier League in 2009 with Middlesbrough was followed by a mixed season in the Championship and, ultimately, a surprise sacking by cuddly toy chairman Steve Gibson, with Boro just a point off the top of the division.
But now, finally, Southgate is on the cusp of being the ‘breath of fresh air’ manager we all thought he would be and then decided he probably wouldn’t. The paper bag and look of slightly goofy bewilderment is gone and instead there is an oddly sexy man-beard and the confident manner of a thoroughly modern coach.
Future penalty specialist Gareth Southgate in his green years. pic.twitter.com/JMBJtO7zxV
— 90s Footballers (@90sPlayers) June 13, 2015
And it’s not just the fact that you keep having deeply sexual dreams about you and Gareth sliding in for a naked fifty-fifty. His record in charge of the Under 21s (despite being somewhat soiled by a 1-0 defeat to Portugal in the group opener) had been as delicious as the smacking together of two greasy, nude men’s thighs. Sorry.
England were unbeaten in qualifying, with 11 wins from their 12 games. Sadly, this doesn’t actually mean too much, as Stuart Pearce also had a fairly impeccable record in qualifying, only to leave the last two tournaments with not a single win. But this is, of course, Stuart Pearce – the managerial equivalent of changing a light bulb with your teeth.
Perhaps more promising is the style and mindset Southgate has instilled in this young England. Built around a refreshingly progressive philosophy of passing and possession, Southgate has found a way to get the most from an entirely promising group of players.
He was also bold enough to embrace the absence of eligible seniors like Raheem Sterling (too busy counting the money he doesn’t earn), Jack Wilshire (too busy buying cigarettes off homeless men and school children) and Phil Jones (too busy falling over). Oh, and Tom Ince is off negotiating his move to Real Madrid because his dad thinks he’s ace, so…
Instead Southgate has a group buoyed by some remarkable recent achievements. For example, a strike force of Harry Kane, Saido Berahino and Danny Ings have 46 Premier League goals between them this season. From the seniors, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Daniel Sturridge have just 25. Add to that the defensive maturity of John Stones, the whippy incisiveness of Nathan Redmond and the elegant brutishness of the marvellously named Ruben Loftus-Cheek and England undoubtedly merit their place amongst the favourites.
Of course, it would be as English as pork scratchings and being angry for some reason about Top Gear for this genuinely hopeful side to horribly crumble and be back home in time for the Hollyoaks omnibus. But, for the first time in long time, everyone seems to have faith in Gareth Southgate. Unless this is all just a big scheme to sell more pizza. God, it probably is isn’t it.