Kicking Out: County teams could take a leaf from normal, likeable England
WHETHER England win the World Cup or not, Gareth Southgate has already achieved what no-one ever thought possible.
He has, all on his own, made their football team bearable. Dare we say it, almost likeable.
A small part of it is that, unlike some better paid, higher-profile managers that had Gary Neville blazing the ball 80 yards towards all 5’8” of Michael Owen while Paul Scholes stood out on the left wing, Southgate has rid a far less talented squad of their fear of the ball.
For years, he was a figure of fun.
Appearing after his penalty miss against Germany in Euro ’96 with a brown paper bag over his head to promote Pizza Hut alongside fellow 12-yard failures Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce was a sign of humility.
A cynic might argue it was all for a few quid, but no amount of money would be persuade anyone with a head the size of, say, a professional footballer to do it.
There are few things as disarming as the ability to laugh at yourself. It indicates an absence of ego.
He’d never made any secret of his ambition to manage England and served a solid if unspectacular apprenticeship with the under-21s, but each time the big job came up, the idea of him in charge would be dismissed out of hand.
When Roy Hodgson got the road after the mighty Iceland beat them two years ago, one article the following day was blunt: “The early favourite for the job? Gareth Southgate. Don't laugh. It's true.”
He’s only here because no-one could save Sam Allardyce from himself, and the FA had nowhere else to turn.
What’s happened on the pitch since cannot be taken as the glorious success it’s being heralded as. They’ve had the softest run to a World Cup semi-final since Germany in 2002, and they’ve struggled their way past Tunisia and Colombia on their way.
But that’s immaterial. Whether England win the World Cup, he’s won more his own country over.
At half-time in their game against Sweden, the BBC showed pictures from the four corners, from south-east to north-west. The Geordies went particularly bananas when Harry Maguire headed home.
Just shy of 20 million people tuned in, a full 25 per cent increase on the figure that had seen them capitulate to Iceland two years ago.
England has united behind this team and, more worryingly, half of Ireland seems not to mind them all that much.
And at the heart of it all is something that draws people in and makes them soften.
It’s called being normal.
Their interactions with the press have been widely praised, with the entire 23-man squad put up for unrestricted interviews before they departed London.
It was partly about getting a notoriously difficult media onside, but it was also about engaging with the public and trying to bring them back to the party as well.
"Look, everything in a player's life now is 'fill this bloody form in; how do you feel?' There's a danger we overfill them with professionalism and doing the right thing,” said Southgate.
“A lot of them don't drink but some do and some need to wind down in a different way. I have a drink at times when I need one, maybe there will be more of that in the future, I don't know.
"But they need a switch off and I don't see an issue with it in the next three or four days. Most have gone away with their partners and they have young kids anyway. But those that don't, they are physically in good shape, they need a mental switch off."
The England players have been on social media, giving each other bad manners.
Ashley Young remarked that the atmosphere around the team hotel has been like that of “a good holiday”, where the players race on inflatable unicorns in the pool and play each other at Fortnite.
That’s a world away from eight years ago when Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney got so bored of being completely removed from civilisation in their “five-star prison” in South Africa that they lay in Rooney’s room and watched his whole wedding on DVD.
A generation of England teams became so far removed from the people paying thousands to go and support them that they all simply stopped caring.
And that’s sadly what we’re edging towards right now in the GAA.
Whatever the reasons behind it – Malachy O’Rourke said he wanted his players out of the heat with only seven days until their next game – Monaghan’s management team couldn’t get their players off the pitch quickly enough in Navan on Sunday afternoon.
They had a huge travelling support but by the time most of them made it as far as the grass, almost the whole squad was back inside the changing room.
Vinny Corey, Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes got caught signing autographs and posing for a few photos, but they all ended up having to cut their stay short too.
It was certainly uncharacteristic of one of the most amenable teams around, but it still looked bad on Sunday nonetheless.
There’s no such thing as an open training session any more. Donegal allegedly hiring security to protect them from public glare up at Queen’s University was nothing that most county setups wouldn’t do now.
That’s some contrast from when Derry used to rotate their training around the grounds, mostly in south Derry, and Eamonn Coleman met with the club chairmen to drum up some visible support from the locals at those sessions.
For their recent game with Cavan, Tyrone released their team at 4am on the morning of the game, and then they made two changes before throw-in.
Players all have Twitter accounts and most of them are wholly disengaged with anyone. They all watch and read, but they’re not allowed to involve themselves in the conversation while they’re in championship season.
They seldom play for their clubs, far less train, and dealings with the media have become so sterilised and edgy and boring that there’s quite often no point of it for anyone.
The current lack of willing engagement with the public is turning the inter-county game into a comparable with the old England setup.
Taking a leaf out of Gareth Southgate’s book would do no harm.