Last Sunday, on the eve of England’s World Cup opener with Tunisia, the BBC broadcast a documentary titled ‘Managing England: The Impossible Job’. Featuring interviews with former Three Lions bosses and players, it’s remit was seemingly to investigate why this country has failed to win a major international tournament since 1966.
Whilst insight into this issue was given to some extent, the programme, intentionally or not, actually ending up being more of an exploration of the troubled relationship between the England national team’s previous managers and the press.
From the ongoing scrutiny that Sir Bobby Robson faced to the newspaper sting that cost Sam Allardyce his job and everything else inbetween, it was a harrowing assessment of how the British media have barely had a nice word to say about the men who have taken the hotseat in the last fifty years.
It’s debatable who is responsible for this so-called ‘conflict’. In truth, it’s probably both sides. There has been little motive for the media to go in as hard and as personal as they have done in the past, but equally Fabio Capello giving journalists the cold shoulder and instructing his players to do the same was never going to help matters.
Following England’s exit to Iceland at Euro 2016, FA Chief Executive Martin Glenn admitted that players needed to learn to deal with how the media act. Is it possible that the FA had that in mind when, for the first time since Kevin Keegan’s spell in charge, they appointed a former England international as manager in Gareth Southgate?
Regardless of whether that was in the FA’s thinking, Southgate’s experience of being part of England squads as a player has undoubtedly helped him in many ways, including knowing the ways of the press. He earned 57 caps for the Three Lions and went to three major tournaments, meaning he came into the job and this World Cup knowing the level of scrutiny he and his team would be under from journalists, and therefore how to handle that.
The 47-year-old is incredibly intelligent. He understands the media often have a bizarre agenda to create damaging or critical stories out of nothing simply because it earns them more clicks or newspaper sales. Yet he cares very little about this agenda. Southgate has admitted that the press can thrown anything at him as “I don’t think I’ll have to go through worse as an individual than I’ve been through already – that penalty in 1996 and the 10 years of fall-out that followed.”
It’s a refreshing attitude, and one that is reflected in the way he has approached the press in the lead up to this World Cup.
Having a media day at St. George’s Park where every single member of the 23 man squad spoke to the press before they jetted off to Russia was a masterstroke. It promoted unity, and brought players and journalists together. There would be no more ‘us and them’ mentality. By coming face to face with each other and talking at ease in a comfortable setting, not only would it have taken a bit of pressure off the players, it hopefully gave members of the media a new perspective on the squad or certain individuals.
A similarly laid-back atmosphere has been created at England’s base camp in Repino. In the build up to the Tunisia game, a few journalists took on some of the squad in a darts tournament – a far cry from previous years when the players refused to even talk to the media about their inter-squad darts competitions. It’s just one example of how open the access has been and how free the press have been to mix with the players.
As a result, trust is building. Two weeks ago, Danny Rose opened up to several national newspapers about his struggles with depression, whilst today Raheem Sterling wrote a incredibly honest piece on his childhood for The Players’ Tribune. These players are laying everything bare, they don’t want to be left vulnerable.
The media would do well to remember that trust before they write any hyperbolic scathing stories when (if?!) England get knocked out. Or indeed before they publish the supposed team line-up, as they now have the option to do after assistant manager Steve Holland was spotted with what appeared to be the tactics for the Panama game. Again though, Gareth Southgate has dealt with the situation excellently.
When asked about the leak, he calmly said: “Our media has to decide if they want to help the team or not.” He has put the ball in the press’ court. Not in the way that Steve McClaren abruptly told journalists to “write whatever you want” following a Euro 2008 qualifier with Andorra, but in a calm manner that personified his overall approach to the media.
Southgate have been open, honest and accessible to the press and it is times like these that they would be well-placed to repay him for that. His strategy does appear to be giving England the chance to go as far as possible in this tournament, and it would be needless for the media to knock down a bridge that Southgate has been the first Three Lions manager to build.