At a time when England has never been more divided, Gareth Southgate and his players have united the nation in four joyous weeks.
Watching the nail-biting win over Denmark at a Clapham pub, two things struck me: first, the wonderful spirit of togetherness of England fans from all walks of life uniting to passionately support the Three Lions and throw beer all over each other; and second, Southgate – the manager – has his own football song.
While the latter point may sound trivial, it acknowledges just how much Southgate’s stock has risen from what many considered an unlikely England managerial candidate into one of legendary status.
At a time of great uncertainty, Southgate has been a steadying hand, oozing calm and providing a nation with hope after 18 months of pandemic despair. When England bowed out of the 2018 World Cup, Southgate was the consoling figure for a bitterly disappointed nation that had a dream run fall agonisingly short.
This time around, the manager has been an understated yet confident presence that has brought great unity and direction to an exceptionally talented squad. He stuck to his guns and occasionally made unpopular decisions that have paid off handsomely while managing the expectations of his players, the public and a baying press used to its England teams being overhyped and underperforming at major football tournaments.
In the weeks leading into the Euros, Southgate displayed great leadership by backing his players in taking the knee, clearly explaining the reasons why it was important to his players against a chorus of boos by some fans, politicians and the ‘anti-woke’ brigade.
He took the heat out of this divisive issue and his heartfelt letter to the nation was one of the greatest pieces of comms I’ve seen from anyone in sport. It struck a perfect, respectful tone that displayed how passionate Southgate and his players are to represent England while fighting for equality, but without sticking his nose up to those who may disagree. This empathy is so often lacking in a shouty, polarised world of left and right, Brexiteeers and Remainers, mask-wearers and anti-maskers, and extreme football tribalism.
Southgate’s media performances are immaculate, and this has surely rubbed off on the England players in this tournament, who have handled their media duties with great aplomb. There have been no scandals and a great togetherness that has not often been associated with England squads of the past.
A Southgate lookalike mingles with England fans. The England gaffer has earned cult-like status (Photo: Getty Images)
During my lifetime there have been some iconic sports leaders whose careers I have closely observed who were great communicators in their own right – the likes of Steve Waugh, Roger Federer, Clive Woodward and Jürgen Klopp, to name a few.
But for me, Southgate is at the top of this list, not just for his communication skills, but also how he handles himself in one of the most intensely scrutinised national coaching gigs in the world. His image portrays a much more positive, down-to-earth and likeable Three Lions brand that English fans of all walks and tribes can really get behind.
In 2020, Marcus Rashford was named PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year and, while I can't predict who will take out this year’s crown, Southgate has to be in the mix.
And while some politicians will try to ride on the coattails of England’s success with awkward, staged social-media posts, they could do worse than spend time observing how Southgate operates – how he presents a message of unity in a fractured nation that now has a genuine reason to dream of football glory for the first time since 1966.
Southgate has been the national leader this country sorely needed and, in my view, one of the greatest sports communicators we may ever see.