No more Mr Nice Guy: Southgate sheds 'soft' label to launch England revolution

London (AFP) –


Gareth Southgate has defied his reputation as England's "Mr Nice Guy" by launching a World Cup youth revolution in a bold bid to banish decades of failure.

Derided as a likeable yes-man lacking the ruthless streak to shake up an underachieving England squad, Southgate has proved to be a smiling assassin with a healthy disregard for the established order.

Now the 47-year-old hopes his root-and-branch reform of a team that flopped under Roy Hodgson will yield positive results when England's young guns head to the World Cup in June.

Hired in November 2016, Southgate was considered an ultra-conservative choice by the Football Association after the embarrassment of Sam Allardyce's sacking.

Yet Southgate had only been in charge for a few months when he decided Wayne Rooney was no longer a viable option to lead his attack.

It was a big decision to call time on a star of Rooney's calibre, but Southgate did not shirk the responsibility.

Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere and Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart have suffered the same fate, left out of the World Cup squad for Russia despite their wealth of experience.

Gambling on talented prodigies such as Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold, Chelsea midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford, Southgate has selected England's least experienced World Cup squad since 1962.

But beneath Southgate's modernising approach and articulate demeanour is a steely streak forged by a painful rejection from Southampton as a schoolboy and the lessons learned from his formative years in a streetwise Crystal Palace dressing room.

"There were some real characters in that dressing room like Andy Gray, Tony Finnigan and Ian Wright, but nobody would have a bad word to say about him," the late Palace midfielder Geoff Thomas said of the young Southgate.

"He had leadership qualities from the outset and was never afraid to speak out when things were going wrong.

"He was always way ahead of his years in taking on responsibility, even to the extent of keeping all of us in check sometimes."

Aged just 22, Southgate was named Palace captain for their Premier League promotion-winning campaign in 1993-94.

He remained a key figure following his move to Aston Villa, winning the League Cup in 1996, and captained Middlesbrough to success in the same competition in 2004.

- Vilification -

Southgate's intelligence and composure had convinced Terry Venables to give him his England debut in 1995 and less than a year later he was starting in the defining match of his career -- the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany.

After a nerve-jangling 1-1 draw at Wembley, Southgate's weak penalty in the shoot-out was saved by Andreas Kopke, his miss condemning England to one of the most painful defeats in their chequered history.

Southgate infuriated fans when he took part in a pizza advert that lampooned his miss soon afterwards.

But he survived the vilification, winning 57 England caps and appearing at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.

By the time he retired in 2006, Southgate was set on management, controversially taking his first job with Middlesbrough despite not holding the required coaching badges for a top-flight club.

He never appeared completely comfortable in the role and was sacked a few months after the club were relegated from the Premier League in 2009.

That failure tarnished Southgate and he had rebuild his reputation with the FA, first as their head of elite development, then as coach of England's Under-21s.

When Allardyce was forced to fall on his sword after a newspaper scandal, Southgate's level-headed handling of a difficult situation convinced the FA to stick with him and he led England through their World Cup qualifying group with ease.

Yet for all the positive vibes emanating from his revitalised squad, England have failed to reach a single semi-final since Southgate's infamous penalty miss.

"I get it, for the England fans... they might find it difficult to find much love for me with my history," he said.

Southgate knows the acid test of his reign awaits in Russia, where a repeat of England's 1966 World Cup triumph seems unthinkable to the cynics.

It's a challenge he will face head on.

"I'm as determined as anybody else to be successful and my years of playing and now managing at a high level would tell people that there's probably more than they know about me," Southgate said.

"I want to win, and I'm prepared to challenge people."