Know ye by this press conference that we, the FA, consent to the contracting of World Cup squad-ship between our dearly beloved Gareth and his brave 23-man selection. Although obviously not Jack, Joe, Adam or Jonjo who are on this occasion gutted to miss out, but for whom the door is never closed, and all the lads are still very much in the frame going forwards.
There was an unavoidable air of ceremony about Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad camera call on Thursday morning. On a bright, brittle late-spring day Wembley was already hung with its own Cup final bunting before a day that has the feel of a royal wedding in any case, with the usual buttonholes and dignitaries and that air of slightly chintzy national holiday.
With the England squad announced the day before this was a more formal occasion deep in the bowels of Wembley Stadium, the first note in the incidental music of promises, war cries, apologies and farewells that tends to soundtrack every England tournament summer.
And so enter Gareth to a fusillade of camera flashes, dressed in sports coat and slacks, hair slicked touchingly to one side like a 1930s intellectual. England’s manager has come a long way in the art of public speaking since the days when he was described by one wag as resembling an ant eater that is only just realising it shouldn’t be able to talk.
This was in many ways a faultless, likable, entirely engaging performance from an increasingly coherent and convincing England manager. For half an hour Southgate spoke with sound good sense, offering perfectly pitched reasoning for every decision, every close call – to the extent you almost missed the old hysterical jingoism, the doomed sweating hopes of his predecessors.
Clearly Southgate has found his tone, his managerial register. It just so happens – but then, this is England – that his tone is funereal, sombre, valedictory, with England’s manager coming across less like the curator of a piece of high-summer light entertainment, and more a long-suffering country vet who appears at the door in the wee hours in his waxed jacket to tell you your dog’s been run over.
Perhaps it’s even something grander and more martial. Because Southgate spent the opening 15 minutes of England’s great World Cup adventure speaking in hushed, elegiac tones about players who aren’t actually going in the clipped, formal tones of a decorated general offering tribute to the fallen of the Somme.
Jonjo, Adam, Jack. All so fine. All so very young. The conversation with Joe Hart “had not been easy”, Southgate admitted. On the topic of Jack Wilshere he said perhaps the most illuminating thing any England manager has come out with in recent memory, admitting that the job of the manager is to “hide as best you can the weaknesses of the team”.
Beyond this there was a lot of talk of starting again and offering hope. It is easy to forget in the humdrum churn of fixtures that this is still a national team that sees itself in recovery, waiting for the tide to turn, with Gareth stood at the end of his jetty as smoke wreathes the horizon, seeing hope in that small-ship flotilla ranged across the bay.
He was excellent on the topic of experience versus youth: “We talk a lot about experience. But if that experience is a bad one it can be damaging.” No England manager has said this before either. And it’s true.
Southgate was also nicely spiky on the warnings from certain high-profile pundits of club cliques cropping up in the squad. “Didn’t happen in ’96,” Southgate shrugged, very quietly pulling rank on the serial quarter-finalists of the golden generation.
There was some interesting talk towards the end of his friendship with Pep Guardiola, a reference to “long talks with Jürgen”, and a note of pleasure, even a rare smile, at the mention of Trent Alexander-Arnold.
At the end of which it is hard not to feel a slight stirring of hope. If not for the team then for a manager who has to date been empowered rather than diminished by the role.
This is no longer the second-most important job in the country. But it is surely the weirdest, and just as likely as it ever was to pull you out of shape.
Fabio Capello arrived a swaggering iron general and left an oddly mute, isolated figure, like a man seen silently bellowing and pointing behind a triple-glazed glass door. Roy Hodgson’s departure was a more tender affair, washing up the day after the collapse in Nice looking like the lead role in a piece of French existential cinema, hollow-eyed and shaky, posing strange philosophical questions.
Southgate feels distinct from that, the first Premier League player to manage England, the first really modern person to manage England. There is a steeliness about him and a trenchant intelligence in his dealings, from dropping Dele Alli and getting just the right response, to packing off Wayne Rooney, to picking a team that basically reflects everything he wants to do and nothing else.
You sense Southgate won’t be crushed by this. Just as for once England will set off on the long march east with sights set neither too high nor too low; and with the chance, even, for the odd high note before these sombre summer ceremonials are done.