Gareth Southgate has dropped a strong hint that he could walk away from the England manager’s job, saying he feels “conflicted” about whether to stay on in light of the various lows of the past 18 months.
Southgate remains physically and mentally shattered by his team’s World Cup quarter-final defeat against France on Saturday night, although he is proud of how they played.
He was determined to enjoy the tournament in Qatar, saying so on several occasions, which fuelled the belief that it could represent his last dance with England, even if he is contracted to the Football Association until December 2024.
Southgate did enjoy the finals but the same cannot be said of some of his other experiences in recent times, beginning with the fallout from the penalty shootout defeat against Italy in the European Championship final in the summer of last year.
There has long been the sense that an element of the fanbase was ready to erupt at him in the case of any further defeats and it happened during the disappointing Nations League campaign – the nadir coming in the 4-0 home reverse against Hungary at Molineux in June. Southgate was shocked by the vitriol of the crowd that night.
“I’ve found large parts of the last 18 months difficult,” Southgate said. “For everything that I’ve loved about the last few weeks, I still have … how things have been for 18 months. What’s been said and what’s been written. The night at Wolves. There’s lots of things in my head that’s really conflicted at the moment.
“What I want to make sure, if it’s the right thing to stay, is that I’ve definitely got the energy to do that. I don’t want to be four or five months down the line thinking: ‘I’ve made the wrong call.’ It’s too important for everybody to get that wrong.”
It is clear that the decision will rest with Southgate alone because the FA does not want to lose him. The governing body has been delighted at how he has transformed the mood around the squad since he took over soon after the disastrous Euro 2016 campaign when the team were knocked out by Iceland. England travel in expectation rather than hope, these days. The players, meanwhile, are also supportive of him.
It is unclear when Southgate will decide but he indicated he needed at least a few days to clear his head before he even thought about it.
“When I’ve been through the past few tournaments, my emotions have been difficult to really think through properly in those following few weeks,” he said. “It took so much energy out of you and you have so much going through your mind.
“I want to make the right decision either way because it has to be the right one to go again, or the right one not to go again, and I don’t think now is the time to make a decision like that. Neither are the next few days, really.”
It was put to Southgate that he might not have too long to reach a conclusion. “After every tournament I’ve sat with everybody at the FA and talked things through logically and I think that’s the right process to go through again,” he replied.
After three tournaments and the remorseless demands and stresses of the role, it is easy to wonder whether Southgate still needs it, whether he can reset for Euro 2024 in Germany. While he was in Qatar, he had to beef up the security at his house after photographs of it were published. It is one of the many examples of things that he could do without.
Southgate was asked how long it would take before he got this tournament out of his system. “I don’t think I have got over the last one [Euro 2020],” he said. “But this feels a little bit different because when we reflect on what we’ve done, I’m not sure what more we could have done or given. I think we’ve given a really good performance against a top team [France]. It was a significant psychological step for those players.
“I have been involved in nights where we have played top teams and been on the back foot for the majority of the game and been dominated. I know France are a bit more counterattacking so it is a little bit different from a possession team who can pin you back. We wanted to be bold in the tournament and I think we went toe to toe with them.
“We have said we want to be competitive all the way through with England and we are, I believe, in that top table … the last three tournaments, we have restored credibility. The rest of the world look at us as a good side. But we are here to win and we haven’t won.”
When Southgate extended his contract in November of last year, he talked of the depth of playing talent at his disposal, how he had “done a lot of the work culturally” to turn them into contenders and his desire to bring it to fruition. “To step away at a moment where we still think the next few years can be very exciting … that would have been difficult to live with,” he said.
Does Southgate still remember that feeling, or have things changed irrevocably?