Gareth Southgate exorcises his demons with England's World Cup performance
Gareth Southgate’s feebly struck, slug-botherer of a penalty defined him for so long, at least in international terms. Twenty-two years ago, the ball rolled towards the goalkeeper, a forlorn missile of misery. The hopes of a nation were shattered, the summer of 1996 ruined.
He had no right to be up there. There were others more suited to take a penalty than the centre-half. Paul Ince sat sulking in the centre circle, Darren Anderton watched on, head bowed.
Why didn’t Terry Venables make any changes? He had Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand and Nick Barmby on the bench. He could have brought either of those two on in the dying moments of extra-time as England and Germany trudged their way to the dark inevitability of a penalty shootout.
But he didn’t. Instead, it was Southgate who stuck his hand up to volunteer for that fateful sixth penalty. He probably hoped matters would be wrapped up by then, his ill-advised display of patriotic obligation would go unpunished and his resolve remain gloriously untested.
It just so happened that each of the ten players in front of him in the queue were accomplished strikers of the ball, seemingly immune to pressure. One by one they contemptuously slammed the ball into the top corner giving the ‘keepers no chance.
They were efficient and robotic, putting the ball exactly where it needed to be like a parade of juiced up Pete Samprasses. Sampri?
Then it was Southgate’s turn. He placed the ball on the spot with quivering hands. Long strides backwards failed to convey authority. A timid, shuffling run-up was followed by a limp side-foot. Andreas Kopke pushed it out. In truth, he could have easily held on to it but he had some measure of compassion.
Southgate turned around slowly, his lips pursed in a rueful grimace, the anomaly to the destructive accuracy that had gone before him.
Germany were on the cusp. Andreas Moller stepped up and with that punchable smirk resumed normal service. When the net bulged, England sunk to their knees.
It’s happened to me too.
With the score level at 2-2 in the Manchester Colleges Cup final, we were faced with penalties. Eager to do my bit for the team, to stand up and be counted, I volunteered for the fifth of our spot-kicks. At least I wasn't a centre-half. No, I was a right-back.
The pattern of that shootout followed a similar one to the England v Germany semi-final of 1996. Each player that stepped up did so with confidence, picking their spot, then drilling the ball home.
It was 4-4 when I made the walk from the centre circle to the penalty box. As I write these words, my stomach tightens, I feel sick. Taking a penalty in a shootout is not as bad as people say; it’s worse.
It’s pure misery. Uninhibited pessimism.
I ran up and hit the ball at that fabled perfect height for the goalkeeper. He dived the right way and pushed my effort out. Before I had even made it back to the centre circle we had lost. I didn’t turn around to watch the kick, I didn’t need to. The opposition streamed past me, a red blur of jubilation.
We had lost in the final. On penalties. And it was my fault. Like Southgate, I was the wrong man for that job that day.
When Southgate was made England manager in 2016, many people thought it was a similarly ill-advised choice. They were wrong.
Gareth Southgate’s redemption at this World Cup is my redemption. too. Indeed it belongs to every person who has ever missed a penalty in a shootout. To anyone who has ever felt that heavy burden of guilt, the emasculation of not being able to put the ball in the net from twelve yards.
It also belongs to Phil Neville for his mistimed tackle against Romania in 2000, to David Seaman for his error against Brazil in 2002, to Wayne Rooney and David Beckham for their moments of madness.
Southgate has shown us not only that life goes on but that it gets better. That it is possible to recover from your lowest ebb. We have watched him grow from a man who caused us to spit our beer out in disgust to one who made us throw our pints in the air in spasms of pure ecstasy. If one day he finds himself on bended knee in front of the queen it will be as much for his own torturous journey of atonement than for his achievements as a manager.
We may have lost to Croatia but the future is bright. With a young squad and Southgate at the helm who knows what England could achieve?