Gareth Southgate’s decision to remain as England manager will be cause for relief and celebration at the Football Association after serious doubts were cast over his post-World Cup future.
The relief will be because there appeared to be no firm succession plan in place if the 52-year-old had decided to walk away after England’s elimination against France in the quarter-finals in Qatar.
And the celebration will be because the FA has always been convinced that Southgate is the manager to take England through to Euro 2024 in Germany, regardless of the outcome of the World Cup.
There was a real possibility Southgate would call time on his tenure after admitting he was “conflicted” over whether to continue with the job he took on permanently in November 2016.
Southgate was concerned that his continued presence could have a negative impact on England’s future. He was also dismayed by the criticism he received as England struggled in their Uefa Nations League campaign last summer – although few managers could seriously have expected to escape scrutiny and questioning after the embarrassment of the 4-0 defeat to Hungary at Molineux.
In contrast, the response to both Southgate’s leadership and England’s performance here in Qatar has been largely positive despite falling a round earlier than they did in 2018, when they lost to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final in Moscow.
This, and the emergence of an exciting group of young players Southgate is pitting alongside his established, reliable stars, has convinced him to stay on as England manager.
He has the support of England’s players, who urged him to continue, and FA chief executive Mark Bullingham released a statement saying the organization was “incredibly proud” of Southgate, the squad, coaches and support staff even though the last eight were the limited-overs . of their campaign.
Southgate’s leadership of the game was questioned again after the loss to France, introducing Raheem Sterling – whose World Cup campaign had been disrupted by having to return to Britain after a break-in at his family’s home – as a replacement for England’s best player Bukayo Saka, with 12 minutes remaining after they fell behind for the second time. Jack Grealish was also only introduced after 98 minutes with barely a chance to make any impression.
In reality, however, it was a game of moments and fine margins such as captain Harry Kane’s uncharacteristic late penalty miss. England’s approach and game plan were more positive than in previous defeats, which carried the air of a timid team and a conservative manager unable to get over the line.
This was not the case here.
England, despite falling short once again against elite opposition as they did against Croatia in 2018, and in the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley, are actually in much better shape for the present and the future than they were after those painful the defeats.
Southgate has been excited about the future of integrating 19-year-old Jude Bellingham alongside Saka (21), Phil Foden (22) and Declan Rice (23), all of whom were outstanding at various stages in Qatar.
And with Euro 2024 just 18 months away, Southgate will almost certainly have the likes of captain Kane, John Stones and Jordan Pickford still available while others are sure to make their demands.
He may have to look to replace elder statesmen like 32-year-olds Jordan Henderson and Kieran Trippier – while Harry Maguire, at 29, will be hoping his good performances in Qatar will restore him to Manchester United – but these outstanding personalities will not let go their places to some newcomers without a fight.
For Southgate, his options were to remain as England manager, take a break or return to club management with a high share price.
Southgate has looked re-energized of late after cutting, by his own positive standards, a world-weary figure during the games last summer when England lost home and away to Hungary.
And while his stock may be high, would Southgate actually be a serious target for any elite clubs who would satisfy his ambitions after operating in international management for so long?
The FA will be happy for Southgate to remain as England manager, as the hope within the organization was always that he would earn every second of the contract he signed to take him through to December 2024.
And that obviously saves the FA the task of finding a successor, with the natural route forward appearing to be blocked by leading English candidate Eddie Howe overseeing the rebuilding of Newcastle United under their Saudi owners and Graham Potter now at Chelsea after been lured. from Brighton by the new owner at Stamford Bridge, Todd Boehly.
Potter’s Chelsea predecessor and Champions League winner Thomas Tuchel and former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino were also mentioned in the mix, but the lobby which insists England must be led by an Englishman would have opposed such an appointment. It would not have reflected well on the production line at St. George’s Park and all the talk of an “England DNA” if a perceived “outsider” had been appointed.
Southgate’s right-hand man Steve Holland was also mentioned, but he has no managerial experience at this level and prefers to work out of the limelight. He can now do this alongside Southgate, as he has done to great effect for so long.
And the FA want Southgate, who they have always seen as the perfect man for the job of England manager, to continue at the helm.
So Southgate will continue into a fourth major tournament, starting with test qualifiers away to Italy in Naples and against Ukraine at Wembley in March.
He has the players feeling confident that he can improve his record with a World Cup semi-final, a Euro 2020 final and a World Cup quarter-final.
Southgate has decided to continue. He must now prove he can be the winner England want at the fourth time of asking rather than telling the same success story from his three previous tournaments in charge.