HE’S the Greatest Living Englishman again now, Gareth Southgate.
Just as he was at this stage of the 2018 World Cup, when a cult of personality sprang up, centred on the waistcoat-wearing manager’s sartorial elegance and his extraordinary levels of human decency.
Gareth Southgate has managed Jack Grealish superbly at Euro 2020 despite fan outcryCredit: Reuters
Southgate was genuinely embarrassed about all that in Russia and he will be regarding it all with a wry smile again now.
And besides, Southgate’s nice-guy caricature is just that. Those who know him best swear he has a steely side which can verge on genuine coldness. A trait all great managers possess.
Still, it is easy to forget after six unanswered goals in 105 minutes of knockout football, that Southgate wasn’t being regarded as a messiah three-quarters of the way through England’s fourth match of these Euros.
Most supporters, and plenty of us in the media corps, were unsure about his cautious approach.
Much of the dissatisfaction – certainly on the Wembley terraces – centred around Southgate’s reluctance to use Jack Grealish.
There has been a widespread feeling Southgate doesn’t rate Grealish, or at least distrusts him.
Yet the perception of Sensible Gareth and Jack the Lad – former and current Aston Villa captains, with little else in common – is an overly simplistic one.
Southgate has always appreciated Grealish’s talent but does not see him as a starter against top opposition amid concern over his defensive capabilities.
The England boss is also more aware than most managers that squad players at a tournament need to be ‘good tourists’ – low-maintenance and highly-supportive of team-mates.
Here was the chief concern of Southgate and his coaching team.
They are well-connected with most Premier League clubs and were very aware Grealish is indulged, perhaps overindulged, at Villa.
It is understandable Villa boss Dean Smith should take this approach, given Grealish is clearly his club’s best and most influential player, wanted by both Manchester clubs, and with Villa desperate to keep hold of their main man.
But could Grealish – a likeable but free-spirited character – adapt from being ‘The Man’ at Villa to being a squad man, impact sub or a bench-warmer, for his country?
This was still an unknown going into the Euros – and it was understood that Grealish could easily become a lightning rod for dissatisfaction if things went badly.
So the fact that Grealish is now being described as ‘anything but a disruptive influence’ inside the camp is an immense credit to both player and manager.
One of Southgate’s greatest strengths has been his expert handling of players who are not starting regularly.
Grealish did not feature as England obliterated Ukraine in a near-perfect quarter-final display.
But at the final whistle in Rome on Saturday, Southgate made an immediate beeline for Grealish, put his arm around him and whispered in his ear.
He needs Grealish onside, needs him to be ready as a second-half sub if tomorrow’s semi-final against Denmark is as tight as England’s coaching staff are expecting it to be.
The Danes are on a level with Germany and, like the Germans, they have been operating with a solid back three and menacing wing-backs.
It should be no surprise if the game is goalless midway through the second half, and if a significant proportion of a 60,000 Wembley crowd is calling for ‘Super Jack’.
There has been a clamour for Grealish since well before he won his first England cap – as a sub against tomorrow’s opponents in Copenhagen last September.
After Grealish had produced an eye-catching cameo performance in that pedestrian pre-season goalless draw, Southgate was invited to praise the debutant on several occasions.
And he made a point of talking up Mason Mount and Kalvin Phillips instead.
Mount was then considered Southgate’s teacher’s pet, Grealish the misunderstood genius, and the Chelsea man was asked if he felt the need to apologise for ‘not being Grealish’.
Even though Grealish is predominantly a left-sided player and Mount is a No 10.
The nation has come to value Mount, as Southgate and Frank Lampard always did, but Grealish remains the people’s champion.
Seconds before Raheem Sterling scored England’s winner against Croatia, Grealish had been sent to warm up to one of the biggest cheers of the day.
In the miserable draw with Scotland, the Wembley crowd urged Southgate to bring on Grealish, who was unable to make a significant difference during a half-hour appearance.
What is likely to remain Grealish’s only start of the tournament, in a virtual dead rubber against the Czechs, saw him assist Sterling’s winner with a delightful cross.
And with the Germany game deadlocked, and the crowd singing long and hard for ‘Super Jackie Grealish’, the Villa man arrived and played a part in both goals.
Yet in Rome, there was no Grealish but no tantrums, no dramas, no clamour from the terraces.
Just an arm round the shoulder and an encouraging word in the shell-like from the Greatest Living Englishman.
And, all hyperbole aside, it is small moments like that which help to make Southgate the finest England manager in half a century.
DANES ARE ANDY
Denmark are more than useful and will be England’s biggest test at the Euros so farCredit: Reuters
IF you’re feeling inclined to underestimate Denmark, have a look at their bench.
Centre-back Joachim Andersen, outstanding on loan at a relegated Fulham side – now wanted by Tottenham – cannot get a start.
See also Andreas Cornelius, infamous at Cardiff as the apparently over-priced £8.5million striker who once caused an almighty fall-out between Malky Mackay and owner Vincent Tan, which contributed to the manager’s sacking.
Watching Cornelius against Wales in the last 16, he did not look remotely over-rated.
Denmark, tenth in the Fifa standings and England’s highest-ranked Euros opponents, are a proper team and a proper squad.
UEFA GOT NO PRIDE
JUST because England have been successful and the overall entertainment value has been high, let’s not forget that the staging of these Euros across the continent was a bad idea, which became a dreadful idea once the pandemic struck.
For evidence of this, look no further than the pitiful attendance in the remote, inaccessible and apparently disinterested Azerbaijani capital of Baku for Saturday’s quarter-final match between Denmark and the Czech Republic.
Worse still, witness the aggressive confiscation of a rainbow flag, supporting gay rights, from two Danish fans by security henchman, under an oil-rich, authoritarian regime, feted by Uefa.
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NU JUST LIKE OLD
Tottenham have replaced a Portuguese manager known for negative football with another – although Nuno Espirito Santo has 20 fewer major trophies than Jose MourinhoCredit: AFP
SO it took 72 days for Spurs to replace a Portuguese who has a reputation for negative football with a Portuguese who has a reputation for negative football – minus 20 major trophies.
After a successful spell at Wolves, Nuno Espirito Santo was far from the least convincing of the umpteen candidates to replace Jose Mourinho.
But this is a hell of a time to take over at Tottenham, especially with Harry Kane’s club future at the top of football’s news agenda once the Euros are over.
They consider Nuno a miracle worker in Wolverhampton. He needs to pull off some loaves-and-fishes action at Spurs.
PATRICK VIEIRA is quite an intriguing choice as the new Crystal Palace boss.
And while Graham Potter has done an excellent job as the gaffer of Palace’s bitter rivals Brighton, he should surely now be replaced by Roy Keane.
Just for the gaiety of the nation.
Patrick Vieira is an intriguing choice as Crystal Palace manager replacing Roy HodgsonCredit: AFP