Gareth Southgate in no mood to celebrate 100 games as England manager

Gareth Southgate, Manager of England
Gareth Southgate, Manager of England men's senior team, looks on during a training session at Spa & Golf Resort Weimarer Land on July 05, 2024 in Blankenhain, Germany. 

Sir Alf Ramsey reached 100 games as England manager in a World Cup qualifier against Wales, winning 1-0 at Ninian Park in 1972 with Kevin Keegan and Ray Clemence making their debuts. But it came amid a backdrop of rising public criticism with England ultimately failing to reach the finals in 1974 (remember Jan ‘the clown’ Tomaszewski?) and Ramsey being sacked.

Walter Winterbottom achieved the 100 landmark in a Home International fixture against Northern Ireland in Belfast, drawing 3-3 in 1958 when Sir Bobby Charlton scored twice. It was England’s first game after disappointing at the World Cup, drawing all three group ties before losing a play-off with the USSR, with more disapproval aimed at the manager after Winterbottom had wrongly decided not to take Charlton to the tournament.

But despite criticism being the watchword of any England manager, neither Ramsey nor Winterbottom achieved 100 games in quite the circumstances that Gareth Southgate faces in Dusseldorf as he becomes only the third to achieve the landmark.

Ramsey led England for 113 games; Winterbottom 139. But the stark reality is that it will be 100 and out for Southgate if his players fail to beat Switzerland in the quarter-final of the European Championship. Never before has an impressive feat worthy of such celebration as a century as England manager been reached in such a situation.

“In a different time, in a different moment, I would be more reflective and I’m just so conscious that landmark is not relevant for this moment,” Southgate conceded.

There will be no presentation – rightly so – because the “focus” is on the game and nothing else. How can it not be? “It isn’t about me, it’s about the team, it’s about me preparing the team for this quarter-final and doing everything I can to make the team successful and the country have a fabulous night,” Southgate said, mentioning “team” three times. “I think it’s something I will reflect on with huge pride in time, but I don’t see that being in the next 10 days.”

England might not be in Germany by then. Or they might be flying back as champions. The fact Southgate mentioned “10 days” – as did his captain Harry Kane – with the final in Berlin on July 14 is not presumptuous. It shows that nothing short of winning the Euros, winning a first major trophy for England since Ramsey in 1966, and the first ever overseas, remains the aim and the measure of success. Especially as England have not played well so far.

“There is obviously a missing piece we’d love to deliver,” Southgate said and it is interesting to hear him touch on what he feels he has achieved since taking over in 2016 when belief and expectation were rock bottom following the debacle at a previous Euros, being knocked out by Iceland, which was the lowest of a miserable series of failures.

“Firstly we wanted to rebuild confidence. We wanted the nation to fall back in love with the team,” Southgate said. “We knew there were a lot of steps to take to earn credibility around Europe, around the world again. It’s ultimately for other people to decide whether we’ve done that. But here we are in a fourth quarter-final, which we’re very proud of, given nobody else in Europe has done that. But we haven’t come here to be in a quarter-final.”

Concepts such as “confidence” and “love” are unquantifiable. Southgate can back them up, though, with defined targets from the relatively modest one of winning a knock-out tie to reaching a final only to lose in a penalty shoot-out.

It has developed the sense that England have been on a journey under Southgate. At the start of the journey everything is new and exciting and there is buy-in from the public as well as the players.

But, at some point, everyone starts asking: are we there yet?

England, rightly or wrongly, have reached that with Southgate. It is a curious state that he finds himself in. In the court of public opinion Southgate is almost now being punished for the degree of success he has brought.

But there is no denying that this has been an uncomfortable and, at times, painful tournament for England in which they have been one of the least entertaining and flattest of teams. Their passage to this stage has been more of a dirge than a march and there is no excuse.

The beer cups thrown at Southgate in Cologne and the brickbats he faced following the frustrating goalless draw against Slovenia, albeit a result that meant England won their group and remained in the favourable half of the draw, hurt.

The manager was also left a little angry and bewildered by it all and was determined to front up to the fans. Cologne was as down as he has felt since being booed off at Molineux during the 4-0 Nations League loss to Hungary which led to questioning whether he was the problem rather than the solution before the last World Cup.

Then there was the stressful drama of being seconds away from going out here against Slovakia before Jude Bellingham, literally, turned that tie upside down with his overhead kick. Southgate knew the accusation in defeat would be that he will have left England as he found them, being humiliated by a relative footballing minnow. That would have been even more painful than the loss.

There is no doubt history will be kinder to Southgate than what he is going through at present. And deservedly so. He has achieved so much even if that is being drowned out by the tide of expectation which means Southgate is struggling to keep his head above water.

It could all change against the Swiss. A win, especially a confident win, would shift the dynamic dramatically, with England in the semi-finals and tantalisingly close. They actually go into the game as probably not the favourites, despite a dominant record against their opponents, and that may suit them given the circumstances.

But if England go out the criticism will rain down. Southgate knows that. It will also be his last game as manager. For him the stakes could not be higher. How Southgate deals with that could be key.

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