Exclusive Interview: Gareth Southgate – “We’re At a Point Where We Can See Where We Want To Go”

Tego Sigel sits down with England Under 21 coach Gareth Southgate to talk development, identity, technology and more...

Tego Sigel

3 years ago

By Tego Sigel

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An interview I’d been waiting to do since I first started working in football, Gareth Southgate has always struck me as one of the more enlightened and considered former players to have played at the top of the game, and one who always seemed to champion development, be it through his own work as a coach, his media work or even his Twitter account. As Nike kicked-off their search for the Nike’s Most Wanted, a competition through which amateur and unsigned players are given the opportunity to join the incredible Nike Academy and train at the unbelievable St. George’s Park training facility in Burton, it was a perfect time to sit down with the current England Under 21 boss to talk about development, identity and moving the English game forward.

We’re at the awesome St. George’s Park facility this evening, but what have you been up to today?

We’ve had and Under 16 international, they played Belgium here. We actually played a different format, we played four periods of 30 [minutes], so that both countries could look at 22 players.

I remember you Tweeting a couple of years back that you thought here were things we could learn from Basketball in regards to rotating substitutes and separating the game into quarters, is that still something you believe?

Well, we think that in the junior game, the grassroots game, shorter periods of time, maybe quarters, gives the coach the opportunity, to rather than shout at the players all the way through the half, to be calm and collected and to pass on information three or four times during the game, so it’s a recommendation at grassroots level, to try and look at that sort of a format.

What do you think we can learn from American sports and how they structure development?

I would have to confess not to knowing too much about their development teams. I know that in their major sports the kids will go to university and the players are developed in university teams which are obviously massive, but certainly we’re of the opinion that we should be looking at other countries and other sports to embrace development pathways, different methods of working, whether that’s tactical – from other countries, whether it’s physical – from different sports, we’re very open. We’re at a point where we can see where we want to go, but we know there’s an enormous amount of strategic thinking to get there and I wouldn’t say hard work, because I think everybody here works extremely hard anyway, so we’ve got to be extremely focused on what we want to achieve and how we get there and it’s an exciting time to be involved here.

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How much is the improvement in quality in the Football League and in particular League One and League Two helping you to do your job?

I think there are some coaches who are working at that level who believe in a different style of play, a different philosophy of play that are coming through that have been exposed to more European football, that are coming through with a new breed of coaching beliefs, where in the past it was quite old school, a very traditional style of play. And I think there are people who are thinking differently and believe that you can have success at that level. I guess Roberto Martinez would have been one of the first at that level to get promotion with a team playing attractive, possession football and I think people recognise that now. Bournemouth have done similar over the last couple of years, Milton Keynes through their academy and their first team play a certain style and brand of football, and I think more and more people are recognising that not only is that more enjoyable for the fans to watch, but if they want to develop players to go and be really elite players then they’re going to have to have those skills, so I think that’s an encouraging development really, and so Premier League clubs I think will look at the style of the club and the coach and decide whether that’s somebody they want their young players to work with, because it’s pointless putting them somewhere that doesn’t fit with their own philosophy.

I watched Barnet playing Luton Town in the winter last year, and obviously Barnet’s facilities are incredible, but the pitch was of such a high standard, how much is the focus on quality playing surfaces helping you and how important do you think that is for players to be playing on as high quality a surface as they are?

It unquestionably changes what the game looks like, because I’ve seen the other side of that, taking my sons’ under 10s and trying to get them to plough through a mud-heap. Are we going to produce excellent dribblers? Or are you going to play possession football if the kids can’t kick the ball through the mud far enough? So that does determine the style and culture of your football to a degree. We’ve had a certain culture for years, but if the ball’s getting stuck all the time you’re having constant duels and tackles, so it does lend itself to that. The improvement in the pitches in the Premier League has definitely changed what the game looks like. I started playing in the late 80s and the way that referees reff’d and the quality of the pitches made a big difference compared to now and now there’s more opportunity for skillful players to express themselves and the pitches being the way they are encourages a better product for the supporter I think .

When new innovations are introduced to football they’re still seen almost as witchcraft, the goal line technology debate raged for years, the vanishing spray still seems to confuse people. Do you think there’s a changing culture of innovation in football and do you think there’s still a way to go?

Yeah, I think any sport that doesn’t move with the times means you will miss opportunities to improve the product, to improve yourselves as a team, as a club, as an organisation. If you don’t move with the modern trends and the modern developments. Certainly technology in particular has moved so quickly and will move so quickly in the future that we’ve got to stay with it, whilst keeping the values that are really important. I do think that’s really important. I think all the successful organisations and businesses in the world are built on strong values and strong culture and that’s always got to be the same within any sporting team, but while keeping those ‘right-school’ principals, there are things you should embrace that improve fitness, that improve technique, that improve psychology and you’ve got to balance the two things.

A lot was made of Germany’s success at the World Cup and the way the team was developed and while the England team was a good age in terms of development, it maybe didn’t meet most people’s expectations, what do you think we can learn from the 2014 World Cup winners?

I think one of the outstanding highlights, if you look at why Germany were successful this time, was because they had a lot of players around the 25 to 29 age-group, with enormous big-match experience. They’d knocked on the door, they were runners-up, they were semi-finalists in major tournaments, as well as what they’d done at junior level, they also had huge big game experience with Bayern Munich and Dortmund. So I think that’s why they won this time and didn’t win in 2010 and 2012. There’s obviously a longer journey that the individual players have been on that started through their system, but we’re going through a period of change with the Premier League and the modernisation of our academies and the auditing of that, and I think the standards are improving. We’re seeing a different type of player coming through, technically better, we’ve got to now plot that pathway for them that they gain opportunity and experience and that we look at their long-term development as players, what they earn financially, keeping that humility. There are so many steps along the journey for a young player, where it can go, so there’s no one linear route for player development, it’s like that [motions up and down] with every individual, but there are things we can put in place – values, the right sort of games programme, the right level of competition, what we stand for, as soon as a player walks into this centre [St. George’s Park] we want to build that, so they understand what it means to be an England player and what’s expected of them when they’re here and when they’re not here and there’s a great opportunity in that respect.

Sign-up for Nike’s Most Wanted, the search for unsigned and amateur players to earn a place at the incredible Nike Academy and train at the awesome St. George’s Park through the Nike Football App.