There’s much to like about Gareth Southgate. Prior to the World Cup, chief among those qualities were the differences between him and his predecessors. As a coach Southgate has already shown a willingness to bend to the game’s latest tactical trends and, refreshingly, has done away with the traditional deference to reputation or celebrity.
Perhaps his most compelling attribute has been shown in recent days, though. Following the teamsheet snafu which bored a nation and mobilised it against its own press, he initially delivered a stern broadside to the gathered media in Russia, querying the need for any friendly fire within a relationship which had, until that point, been remarkable for its co-operation. Southgate was probably a little naive. He has often seemed unafraid of the press and not in thrall to their influence. However admirable it may be, though, eventually that kind of attitude will cause issues.
And so it did. Not issues for Southgate per se, but certainly for the native population online. The English football press is a strange beast. Pumped up with self-regard and governed by a set of informal rules and regulations which it bends to its own purpose, it spent the twenty-four hours prior to the Panama game posturing with a witless lack of a self-awareness. War-analogies were inadvertently drawn, Philip Roth quotes were ludicrously adapted, and all the while the public looked on with a sneer.
Not unreasonably so, either. Most rational people understand that the media is not a single organism; there are good cells and there are bad. However, most will also recognise its tendency to act as one – for better and for worse. The latest Raheem Sterling incident is still fresh in the memory, of course, and there were precious few among that righteous band who were willing to speak out against that treatment. Some admittedly grumbled, others opposed it with meek, non-committing innuendo, but few were willing to stretch their necks beyond the group and speak against something which was so obviously wrong.
Some did, that should be noted, but those who did not needn’t play the moral obligation card now.
It’s a false equivalency, for certain, but it still doesn’t tally with the ethical code schtick which amused the country over the weekend. British football journalists defend themselves and each other, almost without exception and almost irrespective of the issue at hand. The culture of Thou Shalt Not Bite The Hand That Feeds You is so entrenched as to appear enforced by party whip. It was interesting, for instance, that the only dissenting voice came from across the Atlantic and an earnest, calm toned tweet from Arlo White. Naturally, a cannon of a character assassination was shot through his window to a round of applause. Odd that such an appalling lack of professionalism should be cheered, but all’s seemingly fair when the institution is under attack.
What’s also been apparent during this episode are fans’ evolving attitudes. The boom in sports writing which the internet has catalysed appears to have altered tastes and, to a lesser extent, reduced the collective appetite for old school news stories. A fondness for scandal remains, but small scale teamsheet revelations hardly count; it’s news for the sake of news and readers, in this specific instance, appeared unenthused. Angry, even.
With regards the justifications given and the minutiae of press regulations, they also appear less interested in the literal legal basis for leaking information and more concerned with the morality of the action. In effect, it was football’s equivalent of tax avoidance versus tax evasion: there might be a difference between the two, but the response to them is largely the same – as, not incidentally, seems to be understood in the media, given the frequent shaming campaigns directed at celebrities who don’t settle up in full with the Inland Revenue.
Something can be right, whilst clearly also being wrong, short-sighted or manipulative.
Meanwhile, in the England camp, Southgate and The FA had evidently sat back and watched. Scolded journalists make for liabilities they must have reasoned, and those sore egos needed some balm. Not every reporter is the same, after all they work for organisations who often differ dramatically in approach, but a manager had chastised them in public and it was only a matter of time before the guns turned inwards. Another Raheem attack, perhaps, or the well-timed release of a held-back story; the revenge pattern is well-established now.
So out went Southgate to face the crowd, cap in hand and determined to be the only adult in the room. No, he insisted, the press was under no obligation not to hinder the national team’s progress and, yes, he was happy to apologise for the social media fires that were still ablaze. It was terrific PR.
Whether Southgate truly believed what he was saying is a matter for him alone, but whatever the case the effect was perfect. The press were satisfied and, appeased by the apparent validation, gratefully returned to social media to praise Southgate effusively. The result was presumably as desired: the public celebrated their manager, their bigger man, whilst largely turning a blind eye to the infantile pomposity which followed.
Those plumes of hubris also disguised a more significant point: after decades of the press dictating the mood around the England manager, one has successfully turned the tables. Rightly or wrongly, the view of the travelling press pack has plummeted, while Southgate’s own stock has reached a new apex. Winning helps that, progress too – and none of this would have mattered had England failed to beat Panama.
But they did, and as a result Southgate finds himself exactly where he wants to be – in the knockout rounds, in charge of a squad insulated from the surrounding silliness, and in possession of all the hearts and minds.
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