Gareth Southgate began his tenure as England’s permanent coach with a message to his players: Act like elite sportsmen or forget about competing with the world’s best.
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The last time England’s players were on international duty for games against Scotland and Spain, Wayne Rooney was pictured looking bleary-eyed at a wedding reception at the team hotel while other players reportedly went on a night out that involved a 200-mile round trip.
No rules were broken as the players were officially off that night, but there has been criticism of their off-field discipline and questions asked about whether they are leading the lifestyle of elite athletes.
Discipline was high on the agenda for Southgate in his first news conference since being given the job on a full-time basis, and the new coach said it would be wrong of him to “read any riot acts” and “lay down the law.”
There was a gentle reminder, however, that England’s players need to act responsibly and change their off-field culture if the team is to challenge for major titles. England’s one and only trophy remains the 1966 World Cup and the team has performed poorly in recent tournaments.
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“If we think we are good enough to play the best teams in the world and give ourselves a slight handicap on the way, good luck with that,” said Southgate, showing there’s a no-nonsense side to one of the supposed “nice guys” of English soccer.
“The key is,” he added, “we want to develop an elite team. We want to be a world-class team. Every aspect of our training and prep has to work towards that.”
There is set to be a review of what players do in their down-time while on international duty.
“Fundamental to that,” Southgate said, “is how are we going to be physically at our very best to perform at the highest level because in international and top European football in this day and age, the physical preparation is key. So there is an opportunity to discuss it with the players and see what they want to do.”
Southgate said Rooney will remain as England’s captain even though the Manchester United forward started only two of the four games during Southgate’s spell as interim coach.
“It’s obviously not a case that Wayne expects to play every game,” Southgate said. “It’s important for me that we develop more leaders in that group.
“Wayne has played an important part for England up to this point. I’m sure he will do in the future, but we have to develop others.”
One day into his job as England’s full-time soccer coach, Southgate will fully appreciate there is far more to the role than training and picking 11 players to go out on the field for matches.
Aside from the players’ off-the-field culture, Southgate was quizzed about the sex abuse scandal engulfing the English game, including whether his employer – the Football Association – has a grip on the issue and whether he would encourage players to come forward with their own personal experiences.
Soccer took a back seat, which is something Southgate may have to get used to. It also demonstrated the demanding and wide-ranging nature of the role.
“I’m in a position where the comments I make, the opinions I have are going to be reported a lot more widely and there’s a great responsibility that comes with that,” Southgate said. “That’s something I’m comfortable with. It’s important in this role to show leadership.
“There’s a need to be a good coach, a good teacher … but leadership is fundamental in what we do here.”