When England’s footballers arrived back at their World Cup base camp in Doha after beating Senegal, they were greeted by dozens of dancing hotel workers, who waved St George flags, threw confetti and looked genuinely pleased to be seeing them at 3am. The feeling was clearly mutual. Soon Jack Grealish, Luke Shaw and Kyle Walker were pogoing blissfully alongside them. And, as their heads bopped up and down, it was hard to escape the sense of this being a very different England setup.
Earlier, in a seemingly throwaway remark, John Stones gave a further insight into the team’s culture. “We spoke in our meeting about not letting any standards drop,” the defender said. “Whether it might be putting out socks the right way for the kit men – we get on at each other for things like that because we have created those standards.”
Fun, accountability, responsibility. This is not a formula England have typically leaned on at World Cups – and certainly not when the gruff Italian Fabio Capello and the equally gruff Englishman Roy Hodgson were in charge.
But since taking over in 2016, Gareth Southgate has not only established a very different culture – he has done so by radically sidestepping out of football’s comfort zone, too. Performance coaches from New Zealand, England rugby experts, and the best of Team GB’s Olympic talent have all informed his thinking.
It speaks volumes that Southgate was the first football manager to go on UK Sport’s three-year elite coaching programme, where he exchanged ideas and philosophies with top coaches from multiple Olympic sports. Notably, when he graduated in 2019, he called the course “not only a privilege but a great opportunity” and stressed that the challenges facing top coaches were the same, whatever the sport.
The good impressions went both ways. “He was a bit of a sponge, always wanting to learn from people and getting fresh perspectives,” says a source in the Olympic sporting ecosystem. “That is rare among football people. There is often a sense in football that: ‘We know best, we know everything, and we have worked out how to create a winning culture.’”
Southgate bucked that trend early by employing Dave Reddin, a core member of Sir Clive Woodward’s team that won the 2003 Rugby World Cup and the head of performance for Team GB at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Another key member of Southgate’s setup has been the New Zealander performance coach Owen Eastwood, who has also worked with South Africa’s cricketers, his homeland’s rugby team and Team GB. Eastwood emphasises the concept of Whakapapa – the Māori way of explaining your place in any tribe or family. Applied to sport, it places the emphasis on creating pride in the shirt and leaving a legacy for others to follow.
Since 2019, whenever an England player earns their first cap they get a “legacy number” stitched into the crest – which gives them a numerical place in the history of the shirt. Robert Barker, England’s goalkeeper in football’s first international in 1872, is No 1; the team’s first black footballer, Viv Anderson, is No 936. The achievements of those who blazed a trail, such as Anderson, are emphasised to Southgate’s diverse squad.
Eastwood also stresses that trust and openness matter. “People thrive when there’s consistency and composure around the environment,” he says. “One of the things about Gareth’s leadership is he genuinely sees it as a players’ game. He is there to facilitate them achieving what their potential might be. It’s not about him. He’s not the hero of it – the players are the heroes of it.”
It is a philosophy similar to that of Danny Kerry, who guided the GB women’s hockey team to gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics and has also spoken to Southgate. One of the team’s stars, Georgie Twigg, says that there are clear parallels with what the hockey team did and what she sees with England’s players in Doha.
“We worked very closely with psychologists on what we, as a team, wanted our culture to look like: how we wanted to behave and hold each other to account,” she says. “We had to because we were a group of 30 girls training day in, day out, with massively different personalities and ages.”
Can something as small as turning your socks the right way make a difference? Twigg thinks so. “Some of us would never have been best friends outside the sporting world,” she adds. “But creating a culture where you are all working towards one collective goal, and you do these small behaviours that generate respect between each other, is really powerful. And it can lead to huge knock-on effects on the field.”
Southgate did not come to these ideas cold. As early as 2014 he was behind the launch of “the England DNA”, a plan to establish a way of playing and create a history and heritage for the national team from junior to senior levels. His time as manager of England Under-21s also helped put his ideas of developing young players into practice.
Nearly a decade on he presides over an England setup that his players genuinely appear to enjoy. It is certainly a far cry from the “golden generation” of the early noughties, during which players from rival clubs such as David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and John Terry often treated their England colleagues with suspicion, and underperformed as a result.
Of course winning matches has helped Southgate. But much of this change is down to leadership. It is noticeable that he doesn’t ask his players to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, and that he has never shied away from taking responsibility – whether over taking the knee, going to Qatar, or anything else.
You can smell the team spirit at England’s Al Wakrah training base. Now, as Saturday’s quarter-final against France looms, a nation hopes they can once again entertain us.