Gareth Southgate is the Keir Starmer of football

And England are up against opponents far more dangerous than the hopeless Tories.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics Sport UK

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England coach Gareth Southgate is a risk-averse, safety-first bore, obsessed with not losing at all costs, who believes being daring is too dangerous and probably equates ‘flair’ with a distress signal.

Remind you of anybody in British politics? Yes, as my mate Rob observed while we were watching England’s dire draw with Denmark last night in the Euros, Southgate is the Keir Starmer of football. The two have more in common than their corporate monotone speech and plasticated appearance.

The Labour leader has been described as taking a ‘Ming vase’ approach to the General Election campaign, moving as carefully as if he was carrying a piece of priceless porcelain, trying not to say or do anything at all that might risk an accident. Southgate’s England are similarly cautious, retreating even before the opposition attacks, taking the lead and then sitting back and almost waiting for the other side to equalise.

The difference is that, while cowardly Starmer can afford to lose a few percentage points and still easily win the election, Southgate is about to come up against some rather more daunting opponents than the pathetic Tory Party.

Of course, champion football teams do not always start well and often ‘grow into’ the tournament. The trouble is that we have seen Southgate’s England play like this and fail in every major tournament.

As I wrote on spiked at the time, he cost England the last UEFA European Championship with his precautionary ‘lockdown football’, taking an early lead against Italy in the final and then retreating further and further until the inevitable equaliser and loss in the penalty shoot-out. This time England look unlikely to get as close to the trophy.

Southgate does not currently seem to have any solution, no alternative way to play. Against Denmark, England’s midfield was almost non-existent, star man Jude Bellingham was not attacking and much-vaunted Phil Foden failed to make his mark again. The coach’s response? ‘We don’t have a natural replacement for Kalvin Phillips’, the injured defensive midfielder. To which Crystal Palace fans might respond, that’s surely why he took our boy Adam Wharton to Germany. Other bemused spectators might ask, Kalvin who?

By the end of last night’s match, when England were lucky to escape with a draw and were booed off by their own fans, even the Southgate Appreciation Society among BBC pundits sounded more SOS than SAS, with both Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker finally realising that you don’t win international football matches by constantly playing, ‘deeper, deeper, deeper’.

The good news is that England, the bookies’ pre-tournament favourites, still have some of the best players in these Euros. The memory of how monster Bellingham and captain Harry Kane cut Italy to pieces in the qualifying match at Wembley still gives us some small hope.

The bad news is that, assuming they qualify for the knock-out stages, England are going to come up against some far better teams than their group opponents, Denmark, Serbia and Slovenia. The likes of Germany, Spain and a few others look capable of cutting through England’s defence with the sort of attacking flair that is more Nigel Farage than Rishi Sunak.

Whatever his obvious shortcomings, cautious Sir Keir Starmer is set to end the election campaign in 10 Downing Street. Cautious Gareth Southgate, on the other hand, currently looks likely to end the Euros with nothing – except that this darling of the establishment will probably still get a knighthood.

Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. The concise and abridged edition of his book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by William Collins.

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Melanie Phillips and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation


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Topics Politics Sport UK


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