GARETH Southgate’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’ image may precede him, but it does not quite paint the entire picture.
Earnest but safe, party-line and diplomatic is the perception that many football supporters have of Southgate, who has now stepped up into caretaker charge of England following Sam Allardyce’s brainless indiscretion and rapid exit this week.
But for someone who knows him well in former Middlesbrough team-mate Danny Mills, there is much more than meets the eye regarding Southgate the manager and person.
Respectful and courteous, yes. But also a winner with high standards who possesses the ability to tell it as it is and issue a few choice home truths when required. Someone who is tougher and more steely than he looks.
That determination served him well during a tough baptism in management on Teesside, when the inexperienced Londoner, fresh from hanging up his boots in May 2006, swam with the sharks in a managerial sense, pitting his wits against his elders in the unforgiving Premier League.
Respectable 12th and 13th-placed finishes in his first two seasons at Boro represented ticks in the box, given that he had no previous dug-out experience.
Relegation in May 2009 may have followed, but typically Southgate dusted himself down from the blow and did not perhaps take the easy course and concentrated his energies on formulating an instant top-flight path back for Boro when he could easily have fallen on his sword.
In his playing days, Southgate also never shirked his responsibilities and could not be accused of failing to step up the plate too.
Think back to that famous Euro ’96 semi-final at Wembley. While some others hid in that nerve-shredding shoot-out against Germany, Southgate fronted up and took that penalty. He may have fatefully missed, but that is not the point.
That application also saw him reinvent himself from a central midfielder in his early days at Crystal Palace into a top-notch international-class centre-half, who won 57 caps for his country.
Hand Southgate a challenge and he will not cower appears to be the consistent theme.
Mills told The Yorkshire Post: “Gareth is a nice guy and an absolute gem. He is intelligent, articulate and very well spoken and thinks about the game a lot and was always the consummate professional who was meticulous in everything that he did.
“People say is he too nice? No, he is a nice guy, but one with an edge.
“You do not get 50-odd caps for your country and play at the level he did and be captain at every club he was at without having something.
“He is a leader and while I have not seen him snap, I have seen him tell people as it is in his own way. But he does not need to do that and snap.”
Mills for one will not put it past Southgate making his mark in some of his early line-ups with England, which sees the former Boro boss take the reins for the World Cup qualifying games with Malta, Slovenia and Scotland as well as the friendly with Spain at Wembley on November 15.
Given Southgate’s time in charge of the Under-21s, Mills will not be surprised if the flower of youth is handed further chances to shine at senior level – as he bids to put his own imprint on the national side rather than merely keep things ticking over.
Mills added: “Players have always respected Gareth. And he has moved with the times and is a modern thinker.
“The first thing Gareth has to do is pick the Malta squad, which I do not expect to be too different and then he will have decisions he is going to have to make.
“But maybe it is an opportunity to play some of the younger players who he knows a little bit better through the Under-21s. The first game is against Malta, who should not be too difficult to beat.
“It is time to move on now and Gareth is at the helm. Let’s see what he does with it.
“I have every faith in Gareth that he will prepare the team very well and do a very, very good job.”
The announcement that Southgate will take interim charge of England followed a tumultuous Tuesday which saw England part company with Allardyce by mutual consent after a mere 67 days in charge – the shortest-ever reign for an England manager.
The developments followed a newspaper investigation claiming that Allardyce offered advice on how to “get around” rules on player transfers, with the 61-year-old alleged to have used his role to negotiate a deal worth £400,000 to represent a Far East firm.
The Football Association deemed comments made by Allardyce to undercover reporters to be inappropriate and constituting “a significant error of judgement”, precipitating a parting of the ways, the only possible outcome, according to Mills.
“The FA were put in a very difficult and awkward situation. Clearly, Sam – by his own admission – made a massive error of judgement,” said Mills. “The FA almost could not do right for doing wrong. If they had stood by their man, they would have been called weak and if they had let it go, people would have said: ‘Well, it is just typical FA – letting people get away with it.’
“Had he not offered to resign and his exit was not agreed by mutual consent, then I think they would have probably sacked him, to be honest.”