When Gareth Southgate decided to tell the full story of the pain and humiliation of missing that Euro 96 penalty, it took some persuasion to get him to share it.
Southgate was England Under-21 manager at the time and essentially last resort after failing at the European Under-21 Championship in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2015.
Desperate for an extra edge for his management, he enlisted the help of Jonny Zneimer, a performance psychologist who worked with Olympic swimming champion Adrian Moorhouse’s Lane 4 consultancy. Southgate was looking for a way to connect and, in conversation with Zneimer, gradually became convinced of the need to share his own story.
Gareth Southgate has not been hiding from his pain and humiliation at the 1996 euro
That said, he was reluctant. What would a couple of teens and twenties born in the mid-1990s think of a middle-aged man who recounts his misery from the past? As it turned out, many who were on that squad and attended Southgate’s presentation remember it as a turning point.
That group from England under 21 had a number of household names: Jordan Pickford, Ben Chilwell, Jack Grealish and James Ward-Prowse were there. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who would play for Southgate in Russia in 2018, was too. Nathan Redmond and Calum Chambers were other alumni.
Southgate shared everything: rejection as a youngster at Southampton, coming through at Crystal Palace, missing the penalty for England, being fired in Middlesbrough. The unwritten soccer player’s code – never to go here for fear of heartbreak and disrespect – was intentionally ignored.
He has shared his experiences with the youngsters of England while in charge of the Under-21
According to Zneimer, you could feel the shift in the room. ‘There was a dramatic sense of involvement with players in a different way. He was no longer a mentor, but at their level. It creates a different kind of bond. ‘
“I remember that conversation very clearly,” said Duncan Watmore of Middlesbrough. He told his story about the punishment and how it felt. I think he said it still lives with him. It’s hard to escape something so big. He was very open and transparent and I had a lot of respect for it. I was two in 1996, so I couldn’t remember! But I knew about England penalty misses, how close we got and things like that. I knew what a great story it was.
‘We were 19, 20 but we played a lot in the Premier League, so we know how much attention you get, how high the profile is. You can multiply that by 10 if you put it in the context of the national team at a major tournament. It resonated. I could feel how powerful that moment could have been, stay with someone and hurt him / her. That’s where a lot of respect came in that led us all to open up. ‘
And Southgate seemed to have had a connection with them. That summer they would win the Under-21 Toulon tournament. Certainly not the World Cup, but a personal redemption for Southgate, which increased his credibility with the FA and would lead to him being asked to take over the senior team.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he disarmed the fear of failure and freed players from inhibitions
Perhaps more importantly, he had found a new way of coaching, a method that would be used to lead the senior team to the 2018 World Cup. By showing vulnerability, admitting his ‘mistakes’, he disarmed the fear of failure. After all, Southgate’s indignity in 1996 is one of the worst performance scenarios footballers can face.
It operated in Toulon in 2016 and then Russia in 2018 where Southgate seemed to be freeing English players from their inhibitions. Now he faces the challenge of joining a team in a matter of days for what is practically a home tournament, but under Covid’s constraints.
More than any other country in the delayed Euros, England is the Gen Z team: Jude Bellingham is 17, Mason Greenwood is 19, Bukayo Saka is 20, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Reece James are 21, Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Trent Alexander-Arnold are 22. Greenwood and Saka aside, these aren’t players on the fringes or here for the ride.
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These are players who are likely to start, although Alexander-Arnold is a strange case, world class and yet unsure of his place in the squad. But if he makes the cut for 26 on Tuesday, don’t bet he’ll make the last XI.
These are players born between 1998 and 2003. It’s not just that they didn’t live to miss Southgate’s iconic penalty. Most of them were not alive when England limped against Brazil in Sapporo in 2002; Nor will they have any memory of the Euro 2004 penalty shoot-out woes.
However, they will remember that England was eliminated from the 2014 World Cup after just two games. And Iceland 2016 will forever be etched in the heart of every England fan or player. But they will also have been fascinated to watch their older colleagues shoot Colombia on penalties and reach the 2018 World Cup semi-final.
Southgate’s trick has always been to convince English players that they could write their own stories and see themselves as superheroes if they wanted to. “It’s an opportunity,” said Southgate, of the upcoming tournament. ‘We can be the first. We have never made it to a European Championship final.
For Southgate, a generation full of talent and a clear mind is a pre-tournament gift
‘We’ve only been to one semifinal. We have a great opportunity to bring happiness and joy to people. That’s one of the beauties of being involved in the national team. These players don’t have to worry about 1996. Most of them weren’t born … God, that’s depressing! ‘
It is also the point. With this generation, he doesn’t even have to take away the baggage of history. England is young, fresh with a mind open to the possibility of winning.
Perhaps youthful idealism will be wiped out in a last 16 match against a formidable Portuguese side or put out by the mighty French in a quarter-final. But this generation is free from burdens and doubts.
For Southgate, an expert mind designer, this is a gift. That penalty miss could still play a part in creating something special this summer. But it no longer has to be the definitive experience in England.