This summer sees Gareth Southgate’s career take another giant step forward as he manages England at the 2018 World Cup, but it all began 30 years ago as a teenager breaking through at Palace. Here we look at the Three Lions boss’ formative years in SE25.
Born in Watford in 1970, Southgate grew up in south London in Crawley, which helped bring him to the attention of Palace, but he only joined their youth setup after being released by Southampton as a schoolboy and passed over by a series of other clubs.
Following his arrival in 1988, heading the set-up at the time was Alan Smith who quickly identified Southgate as a star in the making. He would play over 100 times for the reserve team, which he captained. “The club that you start with is always special,” Southgate reminisced when he spoke to the Palace matchday programme in 2015. “I learnt a lot during that period even though I hadn’t even made the step up.
“I owe a lot to those people at the club who gave me the opportunity, and of course Alan Smith was a great mentor and always has been in my career. Looking back I will always remember it as a very special period in my life.”
Having waited patiently for his chance, it finally arrived in October 1990 when Steve Coppell allowed Southgate his first taste of first-team football in a League Cup game against Southend United. Coming on as a substitute with Palace safely into the next round after thrashing the Shrimpers 8-0 in the first leg, it was a safe bet to blood a youngster, but Coppell needn’t have worried.
Impressing the Eagles boss with his versatility, confidence and class on and off the ball, Southgate would be entrusted with increasingly more difficult assignments – his first start came against Norwich City in the ZDS Cup Southern Final, before then facing Liverpool in league action in April.
In 1991/92, Coppell initially drip-fed Southgate gametime as a right-back, but his versatility soon came to the fore and during the course of 39 appearances he played at centre-half, central midfield and on the right of midfield. However, relegation from the Premier League the following season would see Coppell replaced with Smith, when Southgate’s fledgling career began to blossom.
By now a mainstay of the team, Smith backed his hot prospect and shortly after completing a quick-fire 100 Palace appearances in November 1993, Southgate was handed the captaincy. “I was made captain at the age of 23 despite the likes of Eric Young and John Humphrey being in their thirties, so that was a big decision,” Southgate reflected.
It would prove to be an inspired move, as featuring in central midfield throughout the campaign, Southgate led by example and even finished as second top scorer with nine goals, including a memorable strike against Portsmouth when he picked the ball up in his own half and rifled it into the net from 30 yards.
He also netted in the penultimate game of the season at Middlesbrough that secured the Division One title for the Eagles, and when Southgate got his hands on the famous trophy the following week, he became the youngest Palace captain to lead the club to promotion.
However, he suggests there was a secret to the team’s success: “I can remember back then the boss wanted to introduce pasta on the way back from games on the coach, and make sure the players didn’t drink. Early on at Bristol City we lost 2-0, and it makes me laugh to think coming back the coach stopped at the first off licence to get some beers and we never looked back!”
Premier League star
The 1994/95 campaign was a marathon for Palace, who featured in the final 42-game Premier League season and reached the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and League Cup, totalling 57 games in total. Incredibly, Southgate played every single minute of them all, but was left disappointed without a trip to Wembley for their efforts, and suffering another relegation.
By now, clubs across the land were sniffing around Southgate, and Smith’s departure as manager would also pave the way for his protégée’s. When Aston Villa bid £2.5 million in the summer, it was accepted and the Eagles skipper’s Palace career ultimately ended at 191 appearances and 22 goals.
“It was a difficult decision to leave but I felt I needed a new challenge and Villa came in for me. It was also at a time where the club needed some income after suffering relegation so the fee was agreed. It was sad time for me to end eight years at the club but my time at Villa was another memorable chapter.”
There would be plenty more of those for Southgate, who would win League Cups at Villa Park and later at Middlesbrough, win 57 caps during a nine-year international career and be selected for four international tournaments.
How he heads to his fifth, but this time as manager of the Three Lions, but forever indebted to Palace who handed him the opportunity to take the first step on a fine career for club and country.