Gareth Southgate is the right man to lead England U21s

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Following the well documented failure of the England Under 21 football team at the European Championships earlier in 2013, the inevitable sacking of manager Stuart Pearce left one question on the lips of many followers of the national side: who next?

Finally, yesterday brought an answer to this elusive problem as the FA announced that former England international Gareth Southgate is the man to take the helm on a three-year contract. Here, we look at why the appointment is a good move for English football and look at the other high-profile candidates that failed to make the grade.

First of all, the appointment of Gareth Southgate is someone that has been widely labelled as a ‘safe pair of hands’, a cliché often thrown around at new managers following a so-called crisis period. No surprise then that such a phrase would be applied to the squad after the poor performances of the team in Israel that saw the side fail to secure a single point at the Euros. 

On the one hand, I would agree that the new manager may have been chosen largely as a safe option. Southgate has experience of working alongside the FA through his role as the head of elite development from January 2011 to July 2012. With this experience behind him, the FA are likely to be confident that communication lines between the two parties will be strong, giving English football’s governing body greater transparency. From this perspective, the thinking behind the move would seem sound.

However, the appointment has the potential to go far beyond the safety seemingly sought after by the FA, with Southgate’s history as both a manager and more recently, as a pundit, hinting that a complete overhaul of the style in which young English footballers conduct themselves on the pitch could be possible.

During his stint as manager of Middlesbrough from 2006-09, Southgate looked to implement a positive, free-flowing style of football, an idea he aims to emulate in order to get the best out of the current crop of English youngsters.This can be seen to echo much of the sentiment that the former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough player has suggested during his time as an ITV football pundit, with frequent calls for the senior team to play with greater fluidity, flexibility and imagination.

Also, when compared to the two other high-profile candidates who we know applied for the position, Gareth Southgate stands out as the logical candidate.

Another former manager of Middlesbrough, Steve McClaren, is said to have thrown his name into the frame with a formal application that was unsuccessful. Despite the success the current QPR staff member has had at club level both domestically and around Europe, it is the overwhelming memories that many still have of McClaren as England senior manager that raises eyebrows.

By no means the first choice of the FA or England fans, the McClaren reign was one that never really took off, ending with an infamous 3-2 defeat to Croatia and failure to qualify for Euro 2008. For these reasons, the FA have avoided a potential PR nightmare by quelling his chance at England redemption and subsequently reduced their list of expenses by the cost of at least one umbrella - ‘the wally with a brolly’ is an image that will unfortunately stick with Steve McClaren forever whenever he is mentioned in the same breath as the national side.

The other candidate that seemed to be in the frame was bookmakers favourite Michael Appleton. The young manager has enjoyed a string of short-term positions, firstly as manager of troubled Portsmouth and more recently fleeting periods in charge at both Blackpool and Blackburn.

For Appleton, it would seem that the position has become available too early for him to be seriously considered as he lacks experience when compared to both Southgate and McClaren. As mentioned earlier, part of the reason behind Southgate’s appointment seems to be the low-risk element he brings to the set-up, something that is lacking in the case of Appleton.

Despite plying his trade on the staff at West Bromwich Albion for a significant period, he has not yet enjoyed a managerial job in which he has had time to develop his own squad and playing style, with his Portsmouth stay limited in terms of resources. The future is certainly bright, however, for this young manager, with his name frequently mentioned in relation to a number of vacancies in recent months. 

Together, the relationship Southgate has got with the FA, his potential to encourage a positive footballing style and his attributes when compared to the other key candidates at this moment in time all suggest a successful future of English football at youth level. As a result, the new appointment may be the next step in the progression of the international setup looking forward following the construction of the new national football centre in Burton.

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