Shortly after the final whistle in Rome on Saturday night, Gareth Southgate embraced his goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, a player he had not picked in his original 26-man squad, and a third-choice who may well spend less time on the pitch during much of his early senior international career than the team’s physios.
In the great burst of emotion that follows a final whistle, with staff and substitutes surging forward, and television cameras in faces, managers can find themselves hugging the nearest person to them. But Southgate meant this hug – he did the same with Jack Grealish too – and again after the win over Ukraine he again spoke very deliberately about the contribution of those who did not play.
A key tenet of Southgate-ism has been finding a way of avoiding the problem that he says “can tear a squad apart”. How to make every player feel part of the squad when their playing time is limited or non-existent? Ramsdale and his fellow goalkeeper reserve Sam Johnstone have, hardly unexpectedly, not played a single minute.
Neither have Conor Coady, Ben Chilwell or Ben White. Ramsdale does not even get a warm-up. In the preamble to games it is him collecting up balls and switching flanks with the goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson whose job it is to pepper Jordan Pickford with crosses.
On every matchday there are three who have to sit in the stands. “Mentally that can be really difficult,” Jordan Henderson said on Saturday night. “Especially when you are away for a long time. I try to take as much responsibility as possible to make those players feel part of it.”
Southgate needs all his players in this super-sized pandemic-era tournament squad. Not because they may one day have to step on to the pitch – the likelihood is that Coady and White will not get close as things stand. Southgate needs them for the key sessions that lie ahead at St George’s Park where they will take the role of Denmark in the patterns of play, and team shape that are so critical to the bespoke preparation for each opponent.
The size of a squad, its dynamic, and maintaining the right number of players to be able to train effectively is the great unseen challenge for a manager. It dictates the quality of preparation and the mood of those involved.
Fabio Capello named a 30-man provisional England squad ahead of the 2010 World Cup for the simple reason he seemed unable to make up his mind who should play, who should travel, and who should come out of retirement. Training was a disaster with the players having to be hived off into separate groups and resentment festering.
Southgate spent long periods of his England career in this role. He knows how it feels. “I am also actually thinking about the players who I left out of the squad and who didn’t get on the pitch,” he said on Saturday night.
“They have been such a massive part of what we are doing. It is so difficult to keep a group of this size involved, happy, feeling valued. And yet those guys have been phenomenal in how they have sacrificed themselves for the group.”
All England players since the days of the Manchester United dominance in the late 1990s and 2000s have been eager to emphasise the esprit de corps. Not all of them were accurately reflecting the truth – as post-career memoirs have revealed. Southgate lived through those years as a player.
He was part of the England squad that travelled to play a friendly in South Africa, 18 years ago, and one of those players who declined to fly to Johannesburg one day before the game to stand in the background while David Beckham had his picture taken with Nelson Mandela.
Recognising the problem is one thing, changing it is quite another. Chilwell, a standout performer in the Champions League final in May, is the most obvious of the potentially disgruntled. There is no true consolation that can be offered.
Jadon Sancho was made to wait a long time for his first start but if Southgate did not see enough before this week in the training-ground performances of the new United man, perhaps that too had a galvanising effect.
For the likes of Coady, White, and also their fellow centre-back Tyrone Mings, now surplus to requirements with the return to fitness and form of Harry Maguire, this tournament is about pushing their team-mates as best they can in training. The contribution outside the matches is a subject which Southgate has assiduously tried to elevate.
Being able to live and thrive as a reserve is a quality he looks for in players. As in the case of Ramsdale, who impressed the England manager and his staff by asking to stay with the squad even when he was given the option to go home.
The young goalkeeper, who has been through two Premier League relegations in two seasons, might have been forgiven for fancying a holiday but he stayed and injury to Dean Henderson opened the door. Not a door that lead to the team but a place that Southgate venerates just as highly. That being the squad that has carried on its shoulders a team that is in a European Championship semi-final.
The brief hug with Grealish which summed up Southgate’s leadership credentials
By Luke Edwards
Jack Grealish appeared to have come to terms with the fact he was going to be England’s super sub at this European Championships. Being the super sub who does not actually come on to the pitch is another thing entirely.
That sort of thing tends to sting, even when you are sitting on the sidelines watching your England side thrash Ukraine 4-0 in the quarter-finals of the European Championship.
Of course he will have been happy. He will have smiled, cheering, clapping and celebrating each of the four goals.
He is a good lad, Jack. One of the lads, one of the boys. He is one of us; our Jack. As he said last week, if he was not part of this England squad he would have been at home watching it, loving every minute as a fan. But he is part of this England squad, one of the best players in the country and one of the most popular too.
There has been a clamour for him to start games. At Wembley, a few days earlier, the crowd had chanted his name, urging manager Gareth Southgate to send him on. It was his introduction that turned the game in England’s favour against the Germans, playing a part in both goals, including the cross that ended Harry Kane’s goal drought and helped unleash the vastly improved version of the England skipper who destroyed Ukraine’s defence.
But he was not there to join him. He was on the bench, warming up on the sidelines, a cheerleader with a privileged seat and insider knowledge of what makes this England side so good, so good (as the lyrics to Sweet Caroline go).
He will have been happy, overjoyed, but he will also have been feeling a little bruised and unsure.
Beneath the joy, there will have been doubt, a raw nerve that was being poked at by invisible fingers. And as much as he tried to ignore it, to banish any negative thoughts and enjoy the moment with his team-mates, there would have been something else playing on his mind.
You do not get to where he is by being happy with a place on the bench – an unused substitute in one of England’s finest results in a knockout game. That is not who, or what he is.
For many, Grealish is a player England’s attacking play should be built around because he can force open padlocked defences like a crafty member of the Peaky Blinders, the BBC drama set in his home city of Birmingham. He will be well aware of that and there will be part of him that agrees.
That, though, is where Southgate is so skilled. His team are exactly that. They share in this success because they have bought into that ideal, in the same way the British and Irish Lions players must do on their tour of South Africa.
Even so, Southgate knew how Grealish would have been feeling – the confliction. He saw a hand outstretched, one of the many who had reached out to say job done and well done and then he saw the face of who it belonged to.
It was Grealish and Southgate’s eyes widened. He pulled the Aston Villa captain into him, his arm going around his shoulder, making sure the television camera that captured the image could not see what he was saying.
He was hugging Grealish, almost in the same way David Seaman had hugged him after his missed penalty against Germany at Euro 96 had cost England a place in the final.
We do not know what he said because that moment was deliberately meant to be private even in the glare of the world’s media. It was by far his longest conversation with any player amid the chaos of the post match celebrations.
He did not send Grealish on because he did not need his super sub to change the game. He did not need someone to create a goal because England had created enough. He did not need our Jack this time, but he will need him again, probably against Denmark and in the final too, if they get there.
And he needed Jack to know this, he needed him to know how much he loved him, how important he was to him and the team. And Grealish listened, he will have smiled and will have joined in those post match celebrations with a little more gusto.
His time will come and had to prepare for the moment. It was only a few seconds, but it probably shows why England are preparing for their second semi-final in three years. It was man management at its finest.