James Nichols: Smart Southgate wise to play within limitations


Cascadia and Mid-Annandale head coach James Nichols applauds Gareth Southgate for playing to his team’s strengths on the field and creating harmony off it
Photo: Ali Gilmore / Prost Amerika

James Nichols is the Head Coach of Cascadia and now coaches Mid-Annandale FC in the South of Scotland Football League

James Nichols: Smart Southgate wise to play within limitations

The dust has settled and as a thirty something English man, I have seen many major international tournaments, very few captivating the nation as much as this one. There was a feel good factor that I cannot remember seeing, even after a semi-final appearance in Euro 96 or in Italia 90.

The nation’s perception of the team and expectation was low. This meant that anything that England achieved was likely to be treated as a success story. The further they went in to the competition, the more and more that fans began to connect with their team. The pubs filled up, the parties increased in streets and the replaying of The Lightning Seeds’ Football’s Coming Home all showed a nation that was proud of its football team again.

Gone were the huge celebrities and major egos that had plagued England teams of the past, and in their place were relatable characters.

Jamie Vardy had been rejected by everyone apart from Stocksbridge Park Steels and eventually became a premier league winner. Harry Maguire achieved almost legendary status with tattoos appearing on different limbs up and down the country. Harry Kane won the World Cup Golden Boot after unsuccessful loan spells at Leyton Orient, Norwich and Leicester.

Gareth Southgate was a man who had taken so much personal abuse after missing a penalty in Euro 1996 suddenly became the leader of this band of brothers. He developed a culture where the players enjoyed playing for their country. He spoke at length with fans after games, he spoke to the media in an educated style and he overcame his own personal demons to lead his country. Waistcoat sales went through the roof as people wanted to replicate their hero.

England came under a lot of criticism due to the proportion of goals that came from set pieces. For me this was a sign of excellent coaching. I believe that the coaching staff knew both the abilities and limitations of their squad inside out. Every single player who wore the England shirt knew their role and the set pieces had been rehearsed over and over again to gain perfection. As well as understanding their squad’s strengths, the staff knew their own players’ weaknesses. This allowed the game plan as well as selection to be tailored to ensure as much possible success.

“England came under a lot of criticism due to the proportion of goals that came from set pieces. For me this was a sign of excellent coaching.”

In short, Southgate asked his players to do what they were good at and able to do, and didn’t ask things that the players couldn’t achieve. He didn’t try to be France or play like France because it wasn’t within his team’s abilities and that is to his credit.

The atmosphere of the squad was talked about in depth.

When living in each other’s pockets for weeks, you have to get on with each other. During the ConIFA World Cup with Cascadia, we tried to create social situations so that players had to interact, thinking of roommates that they would be living with, walking to training sessions, and competitions in training.

This England team looked like a squad who loved each other’s company. Pictures emerged of players having races in swimming pools on inflatable unicorns. Activities like this help players to bond and this piece of social engineering by Southgate and his support staff was another reason for the success of the team.

Rio Ferdinand discussed his time in England camps and how players had their own social groups, largely dependent on their club mates. The sub-culture in this England squad was different, often seeing pictures of players who are great rivals during the regular season, proving to be best friends off the pitch. This carried over and was evident in performances, where it wasn’t just playing for your country, it was also the reason you play as a child, an enjoyment of playing with your mates.

As the England players arrived home, fans were asked not to go to the airport to greet players. To allow them their own time to recover and rest. This made a stark change from normal, where the team are booed getting off their flight after another tournament of perceived failure. The players and staff can look back on this tournament with pride, they have reconnected their nation with the football team and played without a fear of failure or without a personal ego.


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