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How England manager Gareth Southgate has shown the true value of leadership at Euro 2020

How England manager Gareth Southgate has shown the true value of leadership at Euro 2020

(CNN)When the referee blew the final whistle and confirmed England had reached the final of Euro 2020 on Wednesday, television cameras quickly honed in on Gareth Southgate.

The England manager has just guided the nation to its first men’s major tournament final in 55 years — England play Italy on Sunday — but there were no theatrics on the touchline from the 50-year-old.

He looked calm, let out a sigh of relief and quickly commiserated with the Denmark coach. He then turned and welcomed the embrace of his backroom team before applauding the fans at Wembley Stadium for their vociferous and passionate support.

    The moment encapsulated everything you need to know about Southgate.

      He may have what has been frequently described as the “impossible job,” but his tenure has made everything seem possible.

        Southgate’s management style is ego light. It’s never about him; it’s always about others.

        His attitude and approach to leadership has been hailed from both inside and outside the world of football during Euro 2020 and is undoubtedly a huge contributing factor to this team’s success.

          Former England international Gary Neville pointedly compared Southgate’s leadership skills to those of Britain’s political class.

          “The standard of leaders in this country over the last couple of years has been poor but looking at that man there, that’s everything a leader should be,” said Neville as Southgate celebrated the semifinal win at Wembley, a match watched on UK television by nearly 26 million viewers in the UK.

          “Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine, He’s fantastic Gareth Southgate. He really is unbelievable and has done a great job.,” added Neville.

          When Southgate took the national job in 2016, he was far from a popular choice. He had been managing the England Under-21 side, but was put in charge of the senior team on a temporary basis following Sam Allardyce’s resignation.

          At the time, it felt like an uninspired choice — a stopgap whilst the English Football Association found someone more experienced, more glamorous, to fill the vacancy full time.

          Gareth Southgate celebrates his side's victory against Denmark at Wembley Stadium.

          Southgate’s humble journey

          Before moving into the national set-up, Southgate had only managed Middlesbrough for three years and his reputation in the country was far from glowing.

          While Southgate was Middlesbrough manager the club was relegated from the Premier League in 2009 and in October of that year he was sacked. He spent four years in the wilderness before taking charge of the England Under-21 team in 2013.

          Many England fans still remembered Southgate as the man who missed the decisive penalty against Germany at Euro 1996. The defender was ridiculed for years after and, until now, has struggled to shake off that association.

          “For the teammates that played with me, I can’t change that so that’s always going to hurt. But what’s lovely that is we’ve given people another day to remember,” said Southgate after guiding England to victory against international nemesis Germany in the round of 16.

          After winning his first game as caretaker boss, England responded well to Southgate and his stock began to grow.

          In November 2016, he was handed the job on a permanent basis and started working on his long-time plan of giving the national side a new identity.

          A lot of effort went into getting every age group of the national set-up playing the same way which made transition into the first team easier.

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          It bore fruit in 2018, when an unfancied England reached the semifinals of the World Cup. The fairytale journey started to convert even the most ardent of critics and now, after reaching the final of Euro 2020, few doubt Southgate’s suitability anymore.

          “I massively questioned his pedigree to manage a country,” one England fan told CNN ahead of England’s match against Denmark on Wednesday.

          “I think Gareth’s rise through the ranks has allowed him to learn each step of the way and relate to the players.

          “He just seems to have this mindset of learning from success and bringing that into our system. As a naysayer before, I’m now the biggest fan. He’s just awesome”

          Southgate has also managed to change the often hostile dynamic that has existed between the England team and the British media.

          When England exited Euro 1992 after being beaten by Sweden, former England manager Graham Taylor was caricatured as a turnip in The Sun newspaper, next to a headline which read “Swedes 2 Turnips 1.”

          In 2007, Taylor told BBC Radio about incidents where people “wanted to actually do me physical hurt and felt that they could talk to me as they wish” as a result of the picture.

          At every step of the way, Southgate has encouraged the team to express themselves both on and off the pitch and offered unwavering support to players like Raheem Sterling who have spoken out about social issues.

          Before Euro 2020, Southgate also wrote an open letter — entitled “Dear England” — to the fans about racism in the country and fully backed the team’s decision to take the knee before every game in this tournament.

          “This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves,” wrote Southgate in The Players’ Tribune.

          The letter was published after his team was booed by a minority of fans for taking the knee — as a stand against racism — in warm-up matches ahead of the tournament.

          “It’s their [the players] duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate,” added Southgate.

          Both the Southgate and his players have remained unapologetic about using the gesture ahead of kick-offs at Euro 2020, despite criticism from some UK lawmakers of the ruling Conservative party.

          “I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” continued Southgate in his letter.

          “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”

          Gareth Southgate reacts after missing his penalty in 1996.

          ‘Nice guy’ with ruthless streak

          If Southgate has relied on star players like captain Harry Kane and Sterling to fire his team to Sunday’s final, he has always made point of valuing each and every member of the squad, even those yet to feature in the tournament.

          Most managers after a victory would be focus on goalscorers and the team’s success, but not Southgate.

          “I’m thinking of the lads we didn’t get on the pitch — Conor Coady, Ben Chilwell, Sam Johnstone, Aaron Ramsdale, they’re the ones making this team successful,” Southgate told the BBC after beating Ukraine in the quarterfinals last week.

          “The spirit in the group is phenomenal. Whoever comes in does the job, whoever isn’t in — it is really difficult to leave three out of the matchday squad — the squad mentality is fantastic. That’s uppermost in my mind, looking after those guys.”

          Southgate has proved you can be a ‘nice guy’ and still succeed in a cutthroat industry but don’t confuse his personable approach with softness.

          When the time has come, Southgate has demonstrated his ability to be ruthless and puts nothing above the success of the team

          Notably he dropped Trent Alexander-Arnold from his squad earlier in the season when his club form dipped, though the Liverpool defender was then recalled, before picking up an injury and ruling him out of Euro 2020.

          It’s why Southgate’s side is now on the edge of making history with only Italy standing in the way of it winning a first major tournament since the World Cup in 1966.

          Like Southgate, Italy’s coach Roberto Mancini has also won plaudits in the way he has gone about reinventing the Azzurri.

          The 56-year-old, who has got plenty of attention for his sharp dressing — yes Armani — at this year’s tournament, took charge six months after Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup final but has since overseen a run of 33 unbeaten matches, scoring 86 goals and conceding just 10.

          Mancini’s side has produced mesmerizing performances at Euro 2020 with its cavalier style of attacking football, allied to the foundations of traditional Italian defending.

          “Believing in your work, having a vision, having a perspective can actually carry you beyond your borders and limits,” Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri told CNN’s World Sport after Italy beat Belgium in the quarterfinals.

            “When, three years ago, Roberto Mancini took the job on the Italian bench, possibly he was the only one believing that something like this was possible.

            “There wasn’t any particular young players that would set them apart, there wasn’t any tactical project that wasn’t considered. Possibly in that moment, Roberto Mancini was believing, and we Italians were hoping, that it could be true.”