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GARETH SOUTHGATE: A kid from the suburbs with goofy teeth, nothing about me was cool

It all seemed unremarkable at the time, but I recognise now how lucky I was. As a young boy, family life with Mum and Dad offered me stability and love. It’s something everyone deserves – a solid start in life – but the sad reality is that many miss out.

Dad had a job that sometimes took him to different offices around the country, and so we moved house a few times.

Having started life in Watford, we headed for the North of England for a while, and then down to the South Coast.

It meant that as soon as I got to know a few kids my age, we were off and I had to start all over again. I learned to adapt to new situations, socialise and fit in.

Winner: The England boss (circled) pictured with his team-mates from his under-12s days in Crawley in West Sussex

As well as switching schools with every house move, I had to start all over again with my football.

Out on the street, in the school yard or the park, it meant getting to know a whole new set of friends and finding my place among them.

Sometimes this made me feel anxious – but the more I did it, and finally settling in Crawley in West Sussex, the easier it became.

I lived for football. I cycled to school but couldn’t carry my school bag and my sports kit at the same time.

So I’d ride home after lunch to pick up what I needed.

I started training one evening a week with Southampton and was in the same year group as Alan Shearer.

But I was a late developer and, when I was aged 13½, Southampton’s head of youth development told me that the club would be releasing me.

They obviously thought I wasn’t going to be good enough, and they even said they doubted I’d have the build.

England manager Gareth Southgate pictured at the Ukraine v England match during the Euro 2020 quarter final in Rome, Italy, on July 3

England manager Gareth Southgate pictured at the Ukraine v England match during the Euro 2020 quarter final in Rome, Italy, on July 3

I was devastated. It was my first taste of rejection, and it left me in tears.

Around this time I played football on a Sunday in Selsdon, near Croydon in South-East London. A lot of the boys were also training with nearby Crystal Palace.

Once I’d got over the shock of being let go by Southampton, I wondered if there might be an opportunity for me there. I wanted to prove that Southampton had made the wrong decision.

Having been knocked back so early, I found myself responding because of a mixture of negative and positive drivers. I am still motivated by a combination of these two elements.

I was 15 when Palace invited me to play for the under-18 side and then offered me an apprenticeship, with a small wage plus travel expenses from my home in West Sussex.

It meant a choice. After taking my O-levels, I could stay on for A-levels or follow the chance to work through the Palace youth and reserve squads, and finally earn my place as a first-team player. 

England manager Southgate seen speaking with Mason Mount and Jordan Pickford during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship quarter-final match between Ukraine and England

England manager Southgate seen speaking with Mason Mount and Jordan Pickford during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship quarter-final match between Ukraine and England

It was a no-brainer. I had been playing well and thought I would just adapt to the step up from schoolboy to apprentice. But I hated it. All of a sudden, the game I played for fun became my work.

Training became much tougher and I was nowhere near strong enough. Early on, we had to do a 12-minute circuit run. On my first attempt, I was lapped by some older apprentices.

The coach made me do an extra lap. By the time I got over the finish line, I was blubbering.

It was my job to mop changing-room floors, clean the toilets and look after the first-team players’ boots.

I didn’t mind hard work, but I struggled with the change from being a schoolkid to a young adult with responsibilities.

Whereas a lot of the other apprentices were brimming with confidence, being the quiet one meant I really stood out.

I didn’t help myself on my first day of training. I was used to wearing smart clothes to travel to matches, and so I thought everyone would dress that way for training. So I wore my school shirt and trousers, only to find that everyone else was in a tracksuit or jeans.

Southgate, Steve Holland, Assistant Manager of England, Graeme Jones and Chris Powell, Coaches of England, stand to sing the national anthem prior to the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship quarter-final match between Ukraine and England on July 3

Southgate, Steve Holland, Assistant Manager of England, Graeme Jones and Chris Powell, Coaches of England, stand to sing the national anthem prior to the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship quarter-final match between Ukraine and England on July 3

Cringing to myself, it felt like a disaster before I’d even started. All my peers seemed so much more streetwise, and I was just this kid from the suburbs with goofy teeth.

Nothing about me was cool, and I felt I’d never fit in.

I played in defence for the youth team and we lost five of the first seven games. Soon after, an injury meant I couldn’t play the next game. The coach, Alan Smith, called me in and just spoke his mind.

‘You weren’t going to play anyway,’ he said. ‘You’re a lovely bloke, Gareth, but as a footballer you’ve got no chance. If I were you, I’d think about becoming a travel agent.’

I realised later that Alan wasn’t really letting me go. He was just looking for a reaction. It was his way of waking me up to the fact that I needed to make some serious changes to my outlook and commitment if I was going to survive.

But at the time I left and just cried my eyes out.

I could have taken my coach’s harsh words to heart and my dreams would have ended right there.

Instead, despite feeling very sorry for myself, I knew what I had to do – turn this low moment into a learning experience.

© Gareth Southgate, 2020

Extracted from Anything Is Possible, by Gareth Southgate, published by Cornerstone at £16.99.

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