England boss Gareth Southgate opens up on his grassroots experiences

‘It helped shape me… you can only succeed if everybody is pulling together’: England boss Gareth Southgate opens up on his grassroots experiences, the ‘soul-destroying’ sight of empty pitches and post-lockdown challenges

  • Gareth Southgate is currently preparing for his second big summer tournament 
  • The England boss learned many of his valuable life lessons at grassroots level 
  • He briefly helped to coach a local boys side after leaving Middlesbrough in 2009
  • But he has also worried for the kids and young adults deprived of exercise 

A career at the top of his sport has taught Gareth Southgate many things. The England football manager is currently preparing for the second big summer tournament of his time in charge of the national team and would be the first to tell you that he is still picking up new things as he goes.

Equally, the 50-year-old learned many of his most valuable life lessons as a youngster, playing age group football at school and for local clubs in Crawley.

‘I was often playing out of my age group with older boys,’ Southgate told Sportsmail. ‘They were more mature than me in some areas and that could be a challenge.

A career at the top of his sport has taught England boss Gareth Southgate many things

The 50-year-old however learned many of his most valuable life lessons at grassroots level

‘For example, there were conversations going on in dressing rooms that I had to fit in to. You quickly have to work out how to do that.

‘How do you fit in to that group? How do you be not too confident and not too shy? How do you meet that challenge?

‘I used to get the bus to the town centre. One of the boys’ dads let us use the multi-storey car park attached to his business to train on after dark.

‘At least we did until we broke too many of the lights. It wasn’t a reflection on our training by the way, it was just the lads trying to break the lights…

‘But they are brilliant memories of being in a team for the first time and playing for a league and playing every Sunday. They helped to shape me.

Southgate is currently preparing for the second big summer tournament as England boss

‘I fell in love with the game watching the FA Cup final and World Cups on television but when you are playing and feel part of a team with the kit on, it’s really special.’

Southgate can view the value of such experiences from another angle, too. After leaving his post as manager of Middlesbrough in 2009, he briefly helped to coach a local boys side.

‘The young team that I ran, those kids will be reaching the age of 16 and 17 now,’ he reflected. ‘They will be meeting for a beer in a couple of years. Those friendships endure.

‘They will talk about the games they played when they were eight and nine and have a laugh about how they were chasing dogs around the park instead of listening to the coaches.

‘But these things are important because there are so many skills you ideally can develop through sport when you are growing up.

‘To be part of a team you have to be able to communicate, to get on with people, accept people’s differences and accept that you all need each other and can only succeed if everybody is pulling together.

Southgate briefly helped to coach a local boys side after leaving his post as manager of Middlesbrough

‘As you move through life that transfers across businesses and families and relationships and everything. You learn pretty quickly that if you are too flash it’s a pretty good way to get a clip round the ear, metaphorically speaking.

‘Then, if you can show people you can fit in, you are accepted as part of the group and then can enjoy yourself even more.’

Southgate is talking in the context of grassroots sport and the havoc wreaked upon it by the Covid-19 pandemic. He says the sight of empty parks pitches has broken his heart as he has travelled around the country to watch Premier League football over the last 12 months.

Southgate has had the health of the professional game at the forefront of his mind over the last year. He has also had the small matter of the European Championship to prepare for.

But he has also worried for the millions of kids and young adults deprived of exercise and the benefits of amateur team sports.

‘We (at the Football Association) often focus on the development of the future professionals and internationals but the start point is kids getting out and having fun and falling in love with the game,’ Southgate said. ‘It gives them the chance to make friends for life and they have missed all of that.

He has travelled around the country to watch Premier League football over the last 12 months

‘We have a problem with a shortage of pitches normally but now we have been travelling round the country and seeing them empty which has been soul destroying.

‘It’s nice to see we are now heading in a direction where we will start to see kids playing again.

‘There is the obvious worry about kids getting out, for their physical and mental health. To see them back at school has been brilliant.

‘To see them interacting with their mates. That’s a massive part of grassroots football.’

Southgate was talking to Sportsmail as part of the FA’s tie-up with McDonald’s Fun Football. More than a million hours of football were still provided by McDonald’s during the pandemic, with 56,000 children attending a session across the UK in 2020. This summer the number of sessions will be doubled to coincide with the Euros.

Southgate was talking to Sportsmail as part of the FA’s tie-up with McDonald’s Fun Football

‘It’s now 19 years of McDonald’s sponsorship and support of grassroots football and that consistency has been critical to several schemes we have run within the FA,’ said Southgate.

‘Without that support and funding we would not have been able to do a lot of those things in terms of developing coaches and effecting grassroots players. I couldn’t be more appreciative of the support from McDonald’s.’

As he looks forward to this year’s Euros with England, Southgate will pull together a squad with players drawn from across the country. Many, such as Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, have a background that owes much to the junior clubs that — despite the access of Premier League academies — remain the lifeblood of the game.

‘A football club is part of the community and as a coach of a grassroots team, you may be the most important adult figure in these kids’ lives,’ said Southgate.

‘Kids come from all sorts of backgrounds and the club is another home for them as much as it is an opportunity to play.

‘When I was running a grassroots team the most important part was making sure they had fun. But you notice things about them. Are they themselves? Do they have stuff going on in their lives? It’s an important connection and there are so many aspects to it.

Marcus Rashford is one player who has a background that owes much to junior clubs

‘Whenever we present players with a shirt or cap on England debut, one of the points we make is that they will inspire kids growing up in the area they came from.

‘We have to make sure as a team and individuals we are relatable to kids looking to take the game up.

‘It may not be that they go on to be footballers. It may be in another part of life. But they can still see someone from their area as being able to succeed. That hope and vision of what may be possible is something which all kids need.’

From a wider viewpoint, the long periods of Covid lockdown endured by the country in recent months have forced many of us to confront questions about our fitness and our relationship with the outdoors. At times, exercise has been the only alternative to long hours in front of a TV screen or computer.

That is something that has transcended all age groups and it will be interesting to see if it endures as lower infection rates begin to hand us some of our freedom back.

When England present players with a shirt or cap on debut, he makes a point that they will inspire kids growing up in the area they came from

‘That reconnection with the outdoors and nature and the simple things has been healthy and important,’ said Southgate. ‘I hope we are able to hold on to what is important in life. This last year has given us a sense of perspective. We have been through something that is going to give people a reference and a hardship we haven’t had in decades. That may bring resilience.

‘Lockdown really tested people’s creativity, for example. We maybe did a lot more of that when I was younger. I remember bowling a tennis ball against the wall all summer. I was satisfied with that.

‘There are so many different opportunities for kids these days but this has taken us back a little bit to what fulfilment may look like.’

Southgate has spoken intelligently before about the way that lockdown has brought out the best in some and the worst in others. He has always maintained that the true test will be what kind of country comes out the other side. It feels now as though that point may not be too far away.

‘These are the big challenges we face now, aren’t they?’ he said. ‘We know we need more investment in facilities. We know the challenge in a lot of areas is for young people to even be able to afford to play and to travel. We have to do all we can to try and make that possible. That’s why I have so much admiration for people who run the grassroots clubs and the leagues. There are some thankless tasks out there to undertake.

More than a million hours of football were still provided by McDonald’s during the pandemic

‘These are people who get a lot of stick but they all help the game to succeed in this country.

‘We should really respect those people who operate at that level of the game as they require unique skill sets. Just because you work at the highest level, don’t think it’s easy to go and work with young kids as I know from personal experience that it’s not.

‘There are definitely challenges ahead. They were there before the pandemic and they will now have been exacerbated by what we have been through.

‘I am hopeful there will be a better understanding of what’s important and a better understanding of the fact we have to pull together.

‘It’s on us all and, on a micro-scale, football at grassroots level will be a good example of how that will be possible.’ 

Gareth Southgate is helping to relaunch McDonald’s Fun Football sessions after lockdown. To find your nearest free, safe session, go to www.McDonalds.co.uk/football




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