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The making of the man who almost brought football home

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On a calm Saturday morning in 1984, Bob White squinted from the touch-line, trying to make out the left-sided midfielder causing his Surrey Schools side such consternation. Thirty-seven years later he composed a text to the Man of the Match from all those years ago, congratulating him on leading his country to the European Championship final.

A leader, a listener and a loyal friend, Gareth Southgate’s belief in himself and others has catapulted this markedly calm and reflective figure into the national consciousness. It’s a challenge he has embraced with both hands; a role he fulfils with the same maturity he displayed when he first signed for Crystal Palace aged just 16.

A maturity nurtured in south London.

At Hazelwick school in Crawley, football trials for the 1983/84 season had just got underway. Dave Palmer, determined to lead the school side to glory, watched on.

“That’s where I first saw him,” he remembers. “I saw quite small boy just gliding around the pitches looking total control – of himself and of the ball. We all just looked at each other and went: ‘Wow’.

“He was an exceptional all-round sportsman. He loved rugby, cricket, basketball – he was county champion in athletics. He had the school triple jump record for years. Football though… he was football mad.

“But it was his attitude that set him apart as much as his ability.”

Southgate was quiet, but he was already demonstrating himself to be a leader.

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It was his attitude that set him apart as much as his ability.

Dave Palmer

“He was captain material,” recalls Steve Avory, Palmer’s colleague at Hazelwick and now Academy Director at Charlton Athletic. “Other kids would look up to him because of his ability, but because of how measured he was as well.

“He was a thinker. He would be one of the prominent members of the group – not necessarily someone who was loud, but well-respected.”

Star of the county side, he missed the business end of the season while suffering with Osgood-Schlatter disease.

“We got to the final, but Gareth couldn’t play,” says Palmer. “But he came to every single match and was supportive. He was like my assistant manager. We played the final at Palace’s ground, so that would have been a big thing for him to miss.

“But he never showed it. He was a delight to work with, and so supportive of the other boys in the team no matter how good they were.”

Signing as an apprentice for Palace after a recommendation by Derek Millan, he displayed the same quiet assuredness in his new surroundings.

“He’s not changed,” laughs Geoff Thomas, then first-team captain. “He was a mature 16-year-old. He knew what he wanted to do. Lots of people were saying that he should be doing something apart from football.

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“He wasn’t your typical footballer – he was brighter than the majority of us!”

“He was clever – intelligent, academically clever,” says Palmer. “He got a good range of O-Levels, and if he hadn’t gone into football he would have done A-Levels and probably university. But he was also very sharp: quick-witted with clever humour.”

Bob White was in charge of Palace’s burgeoning Academy set-up, and spotted Southgate’s perceptiveness straight away.

“What struck me seeing him every day was that he was an intelligent young man. He had the leadership qualities. He had the attributes to go to the top in whatever he wanted to do, whether football or outside.”

But there were doubts. Even in his young footballing career, there was serious adversity to overcome.

“I took Gareth and the North Sussex team down to play against Southampton,” remembers Palmer. “They had a boy playing for them by the name of Alan Shearer. We lost 6-0, and I’m pretty sure he scored all six goals.

“He was a man, and Gareth wasn’t. Height and weight was a concern initially for him in football. I’ll always remember taking him down for that and him being in awe of this man-boy scoring goals from every angle. He was unstoppable.

“It opened their eyes. He was on a different level at that age, so I think it was good. They certainly didn’t feel dispirited – I think they just felt glad to be on that pitch.”

At Palace, there was work to do to convince the coaches that he belonged at the top-level displayed by the young Shearer.

“We were 50/50 on whether we would take him or not,” says Alan Smith, then Academy manager before his elevation to take charge of the first-team. “John Salako was our star youth team player, with Richard Shaw not too far behind. Gareth didn’t have a big impact, he wasn’t one of these explosive types of people.

“He struggled. It was tough. Ours was a combustible club: we had Ian Wright at the top, Mark Bright, Andy Gray. Gareth described it as a bear pit. We had a very small staff, so there wasn’t a lot of human resources going in to it.

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He struggled...I think Gareth thought: 'Am I going to make it?'

Alan Smith

“They cleaned the players boots. The showers were always cold, and we had 30 people in the shower. The conditions were poor. It made you mentally tough.

“At the start of each season we would go away to an army camp. We’d train with the guards…being woken at six in the morning by a bugle. I think Gareth thought: ‘Am I going to make it?’”

There were concerns among the staff that he lacked the clinical cutting-edge to make it at the very top.

“There were doubts over whether he was too nice to become a professional footballer,” admits White. “But he had a mental resilience. It’s the school of hard knocks. It was uncompromising."

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The work was exhausting: cleaning the toilets and the first-team boots on top of training. Southgate would often slump by his dad’s car at Three Bridges station in Crawley, waiting for him to return from work because he was too exhausted to walk the final mile home

But all the time, Southgate was watching and listening, gleaning information from the way the first-team conducted themselves, determined to maximise his chances of fulfilling his dream.

“He listened – you could tell he was listening to all the pros,” says Thomas. “He had some excellent pros to look up to: Wright, Bright, Gray, Nigel Martyn and Andy Thorn. All characters that he picked the best little bits of.”

Alan Smith was keen to develop his leadership skills: when Ray Wilkins arrived at the club Smith ensured he roomed with Southgate on a trip to Portugal, so he could learn as much as possible from such a seasoned pro.

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There were doubts over whether he was too nice to become a professional footballer.

Bob White

Avory sees it as a vital quality: “I think that ability to listen, to learn, and to select information from the right people who he deemed worth listening to, enabled him to become a better footballer as he progressed throughout his career, and consequently a better manager.”

In Geoff Thomas, Southgate had the perfect role model while captain of the youth team.

“Geoff was never a bellower,” explains White. “He just went quietly about his business and led by example on the park. On the other side you Ian Wright or Alan Pardew who were very different: loud and brash and you knew when they were around the training ground.

“But I think Gareth followed the example that Geoff was leading from the first-team, and it was those leadership qualities that Gareth showed. If you ask Gareth how much he respected Geoff, I think it would be 100%.

“We were lucky. We had a captain at the first-team that Gareth could very easily identify with regarding leadership.”

The admiration still holds. Even today when Southgate picks up the phone to Thomas, he starts with the same two words: ‘Alright, skip?’

There is, of course, a Southgate outside of football. He once summed up the public’s attitude to him: ‘Nice guy, that Southgate. Bit boring, though.’ It is, of course, far from the truth. In the early days at Palace, his desire to become a footballer was married with a desire to hold a career in the media.

"I remember an early interest he took in the media, writing his own weekly column in the Croydon Advertiser,” says Terry Byfield, then working in the publications department at the club. “Typical of the man though he didn’t just do a phone interview, he went in and sat on the sports desk and typed his copy and of course he never missed the deadline.”

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He listened - you could tell he was listening to all the pros.

Geoff Thomas

“He’s not one that has to pontificate about politics,” remarks Smith, “but he does know what’s going on. He does go to the theatre, and before his recent fame he would go to the pub – we would pop down to the Duke’s Head in Wallington for a few pints. We’d go to the cricket in Surrey, not sitting in any special VIP area. We treat him the same, and he treats us the same.”

His time for other people engenders such warmth of feeling towards Southgate from those who knew him as a youngster. When he should have been celebrating England’s first victory at the European Championship against Croatia, he took the time to text Thomas congratulations on his receipt of an MBE. At 1:30 am after the Denmark semi-final, he made sure to thank White for his congratulations and look ahead to the final.

It’s the continuation of a long trend. As a player, he often invited Dave Palmer to Selhurst Park, ensuring to share a drink and a catch up in the players’ bar before heading home.

Still teenagers, he and best-friend Andy Woodman heard of a pact between Ian Wright and Tony Finnegan: if one player got a big contract, the other would buy them a fancy watch.

On Woodman’s 30th birthday, a present arrived from Southgate. Enclosed was a cheque for £6,000, and a note that read: ‘Get yourself that watch. Gareth.’

On Sunday, those who know him best will see that Southgate walk out in a European Championship final, with the hopes and dreams of the nation resting on his shoulders. The poignancy of the moment is hard to overstate.

“My first memory of football is being in my Granny and Grandad’s front room, watching England win the World Cup,” says Palmer. “I heard Gareth talking on TV about how he aims to do this for the country, and for the young people to give them memories.

“My greatest hope is that they can win the final, because I think he deserves it.”

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He's come through the ranks of Palace and we should be incredibly proud of that.

Bob White

Bob White speaks similarly: “I was alive to see 1966 at 10 years of age. Historically, it’s incredible. I think for me, regarding Gareth, I remind people that he is one of our own. Don’t forget that – we stick with him. He’s come through the ranks of Crystal Palace and we should be incredibly proud of that.”

“I’m really proud to say that I’m still a mate of his,” says Thomas. “He’s been a delight to keep in touch with.”

Writing about his career a few years ago, Southgate was modest: “Ask me to list my achievements and I’ll ask you if you’ve got five seconds to spare.”

But while there are players with more glittering trophy cabinets, few could claim to inspire the same warmth that Southgate does from those who knew him best.

A Division One title and a League Cup winners medal remain the only silverware. But Southgate’s existential impact is far more important. He calms furores, encourages selflessness and inspires generosity, creating a spirit of togetherness that permeates outward from St. George’s Park and soothes the national psyche.

He’s a listener, often quiet and reflective when others would see anger as the only reaction. But that’s leadership.

When he walks out at Wembley to try and reach a sporting utopia that has evaded the nation for so long, he’ll inspire fond smiles from all those who don’t know him – and even fonder ones from those who do.

There can’t be many better achievements than that.