Words: Owen Blackhurst
Images: Offside Sports Photography
Wherever you are reading this (geographically speaking, I don’t care if you are on the khazi), it must seem perfectly ordinary that a UK based football magazine has decided to close out 2018 and look forward to 2019 by putting Gareth Southgate on one of the covers. He’s universally liked, he took a young England team to a World Cup and had fun doing it, and has followed that up by promoting more youth, giving Spain an old-fashioned thrashing on their own patch and gambling successfully against Croatia. Your mum loves him, your dad wants to be his mate, your uncle has bought a waistcoat to wind you up when you go home for the weekend, and you are just glad that he likes playing out from the back.
But, for me, if you’d have said in May that I would argue for Southgate as one of our cover stars and put my hand up to write about him, I’d have laughed. Absolutely no chance. But here we are. The end of 2018. The beginning of 2019. ‘Owen and Gareth 4eva’ scrawled on the wall of the MUNDIAL bogs.
It’s not that I never liked Gareth Southgate. I have always liked Gareth Southgate. I’m one of the few staffers here to properly remember him as a player, and he was just always so honest. He had a weird nickname (Nord) and was a fellow member of the big snout club and was calm and assured and a little bit continental. Skipper of every club he played for. Lifted trophies at Palace and Villa and Boro. 57 caps for his country. A very good man and a very good player who should’ve probably got a massive move but just cracked on and enjoyed his career. He’d walk it at Spurs or City or Liverpool now, absolutely piss it.
And I’ll never forget that he had the bollocks to walk up and take a penalty while some self-styled leaders withered on the pitch. Euro 96 was one of the greatest summers of my adult life, and France 1998 was a continuation of that. Skiving work to watch games in pubs, drinking the weirdly foamy Carling Premier as I picked paint off my trainers, dancing in the streets with my mates, singing about Football Coming Home. It feels weird to type that. Like I’ve taken a plaster off a part of me I don’t want people to know about. I’ve not bothered about England since then because of 10 German Bombers and Fuck the Pope and the endless xenophobic and moronic shite that I want no part of.
So I didn’t care about England taking what was apparently their worst ever team into a tournament, I was just going to enjoy working for a football magazine during a World Cup. Cynically, I hoped they would get out of the group because we had dropped a load of cash on a month-long pop-up space called Hotel MUNDIAL (you might have heard us mention it) and I wanted us to sell loads of ale.
But I did care about The S*n and The Daily Mail’s absolutely disgusting behaviour towards Raheem Sterling, and I remember the feeling of pride I got when I read what the England manager said to the press when they went after Raheem about his gun tattoo. Here’s an abridged version.
"He knows he's got our support, in my view a tattoo is like any work of art. It's a very individual meaning; the intent is all with the individual and the person. What has been clear by his own statement and his own experiences is that he is not someone who supports or wants to promote guns. He's a very strong individual, and he's looking forward to the Game.
“I think the personal story of a lot of our players is quite remarkable. People often highlight the issues, the faults, of all of the squad, but for so many of them it's incredible they've got to the point they have. They are a great example to young kids of what you can achieve with your life if you are dedicated, if you are focused.”
What a hero. What a man. He’s gone over the top in support of one of his players, shot down every argument and every misconception with one statement, and set an agenda of positivity and inclusivity. He’s told the slugs that they can stick their invective where the sun don't shine and, in that moment, I decided to get on board and see where it went. I think we even sat down and picked our starting Xls in the boozer before the tournament. Like innocent football fans.
Then it happened, didn’t it? Unicorn races and big headers. Making people whole again and saluting the fans. Both fists in the air and winning penalty shootouts. The whole country dancing. Us dancing on tables at the Hotel and all the way to the semifinals. We even made some T-shirts with “Football’s Coming Home” on in the ‘World in Motion’ typeface because we’re slaves to nostalgia in a way but mainly because we had a fucking ace time cheering for a group of lads who enjoyed each other’s company. We hardly sold any. But it did come home for a bit, didn’t it? It was fun. Football is meant to be fun.
Gareth Southgate made all of that possible, essentially, by being a top bloke. Gareth with his actions and his words, leading from the front and teaching a group of young men a lot about life by just being himself. An honest man in a dishonest world who temporarily bonded a nation at odds with itself and everywhere else and allowed me to drop twenty years of cynicism and sneering at England and rip off the plaster and have a right old laugh.
So wherever you are, understand that sticking Gareth on the cover was the last thing we expected to do. We’ve done it because what he represents is far more important than Three Lions on the shirt and 50 years of hurt. Far more important than semifinals and spilled pints.
Put your hands together for a very good man. It’s the least he deserves.