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Coaches and teammates reveal how Palace struggles shaped Gareth Southgate

Features

In the late 1980s, a quiet schoolboy joined Crystal Palace’s youth set-up, and found himself struggling. Several years later, that same boy emerged from the tunnel at Selhurst Park a man, 23-years-old and club captain.

“The club you start with is always special,” remarked Gareth Southgate of his development at Palace. Over 30 years later, the now-England manager will return to south London to open Palace's remarkable new Academy facilities.

“It was around 1986,” says Alan Smith, then-Palace youth-team manager and soon to be first-team boss. “I just remember this 16-year-old boy that had been released from Southampton. Peter Prentice who was our scout, and John Spark, said to me: ‘You know, this lad has got something.’

“But he was very quiet. He just came in, lived in Croydon with his mum and dad, who are lovely people. He just quietly got on. I think we were 50/50 whether we would take him or not.”

It was a sliding doors moment, and for Palace and Southgate, the timing was just right; the Eagles were beginning to invest in youth development as they looked to build for the future.

“It was a different era then – there were only four of us full-time,” remembers Academy boss Bob White of the early 1980s. “There was one physio – nowadays there are probably more medics and coaches than there are players when you look at the training ground.

“Gareth came in at a time when the club really changed. There was suddenly more investment in youth, and Alan came and had an incredible influence. I became full-time, and the structure of the Academy became more professional.”

For a shy schoolboy like Southgate, a professional Academy was a tough place to fit in. “I know he found it difficult to make that transition from schoolboy to professional footballer,” remembers Dave Palmer, Southgate’s PE teacher. “And I know he was massively well supported by Palace. I know how much Palace did for Gareth.”

“He struggled – it was tough,” Smith recalls. “You wouldn’t believe: they cleaned the players’ boots, the showers were always cold. The conditions were poor. It made you mentally tough – if you could get through that, you could get through pretty much anything.”

But as Southgate progressed through the Academy, his leadership qualities began to shine through. A competitive group of senior players made for difficult training sessions – an environment he would later affectionately dub the ‘bear pit’.

“It was very competitive,” remembers Mark Bright, who witnessed Southgate’s emergence into the first-team. “There were always scuffles and things like that, a bit of overzealousness – a few coming togethers, quite rough.

“Players just got on each other’s nerves over a period of time. You worked with these guys for nine or 10 months of the year, and it’s not like an office. So someone is getting in the team in your position, sometimes you get annoyed with them.

“But nobody used to think anything of it. You shake hands in the changing room and that would be it.”

Southgate thrived. “He was a leader right from the off,” says Geoff Thomas, then-club captain. “He listened – you could tell he was listening to all the pros. He had some excellent pros to look up to: Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Andy Gray, Nigel Martyn, Andy Thorn.

“All characters he picked the best bits of, little bits from. He wasn’t your typical footballer – he was brighter than the majority of us.”

Guided as much by the Academy coaches as by his senior teammates, Southgate soon emerged as a genuine prospect for first-team football.

“I think there were doubts,” admits Bob White. “There were doubts over whether he was too nice to become a professional footballer. But he had a mental resilience – it’s the school of hard knocks.

“Everyone looked out for each other and asked for each other. They had to be very disciplined.”

“He had a quiet way of going about it, but I liked that,” says Smith. “He represented, I thought, what Crystal Palace was about. We were young, we were dynamic, we were fresh.

“I thought Gareth gave us that. He fitted all those things. His enthusiasm was all around the place.”

Now, as Southgate returns to the club of his development to open its new Academy facility, he will see in person the state-of-the-art conditions that young players have the chance to benefit from.

“We used to train on mud,” laughs Bright, recalling the era in which Southgate emerged. “I remember driving through the gates when it had been raining overnight to see if any pools had formed.

“[The new Academy] would have been amazing. Everything is there for you now. We’ll provide you with great facilities, good coaching, a great environment to do schoolwork while parents can have a cup of tea.

“Naturally not everyone can make it. But if they don’t make it you want them to say: ‘I had a good time, the coaching was good, I just wasn’t good enough – but I’ll end up being a fan for life’.”

Southgate, when he sets foot back on Palace Academy grounds, will have plenty of fond memories. As he admits: “I owe a lot to those people at the club who gave me the opportunity.”

Now the new facility gives the chance for a new generation of youngsters to make memories - and history - themselves.