I learnt to kick a football late in life. At school in the eighties, I disliked and feared sport, and dodged it as much I could. At that, I was Olympic class. I was particularly indifferent to football and the brand of masculinity that normally came with it. I followed no team, unlike my peers who – naturally, it being rural Sussex – enthusiastically supported Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Happily, my sporty brothers loved me whatever I did, and I learnt to live with lad culture by being funny and subversive, two traits with which I often still irritate myself today. I was that boy.
It was during Euro ’96 that I caught the football bug. Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland – with apologies to members north of the border – was the point of infection. I watched it alone in my uncle’s front room, because he didn’t fancy my chances in the pubs of north Lanarkshire. From there it was short step, via a friend’s introduction, to the joys of Crystal Palace FC and a flat in south London close to the stadium. Watching Palace’s winning goal against Sheffield United in the playoff final the following year was one of two occasions in my life when my legs went from under me. There can be nothing quite like football.
My interest has been on and off since then. Football can inspire but also repel. It can bring out the worst in some of the men and boys who follow it, glorifying and entrenching racism, sexism and homophobia. With such power and attitudes under attack elsewhere, football can sometimes feel like the last stand of an embattled minority. And for fans, it can still be violent and frightening, not least when children are present. There have been several times when being funny and subversive wasn’t much use to me.
It would be very wrong to say that football hasn’t changed or that the sport’s authorities haven’t continued to try to change things. For example, action against racism – often contested, and sometimes weak – on and off the pitch has nonetheless been sustained. Football looks and feels more diverse than when I became a fan, with the game in particular catching up with the fact that many women follow and play it: we now have many women commentators and an even more successful women's team. And there have always been players ready to stand up for causes and serve as powerful role models.
So diversity and inclusion have been growing in football for years, mirroring and influencing wider society. They have reached new peaks with the England team that played Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley. If a national side reflects the best of a country, then the England team and its manager are saying something good. I have been awestruck by the positive reaction to Southgate and the team: from Denmark’s manager – who might have been forgiven a little snarkiness – congratulating Southgate on the values and impact of his team, to the hijab-wearing women wearing England shirts because they felt the team represented them. It’s impossible to measure the impact, influence and feelings generated within someone, particularly a young person, of seeing your team taking the knee against racism, the captain of your country wearing a rainbow armband, or a player entering the stands to give his shirt to a young girl – but does anyone want to deny it exists?
If, like me, you see one of the roles of a manager as creating a culture in a team, then England’s achievement has depended on Southgate and his backroom colleagues as much as his wonderful playing staff. You sense the planfulness, and the patient building up of this culture over many years. Southgate’s commitment to working with both the individuality of his players and their collective desire to stand for something bigger. The way team members speak openly and honestly, with no bombast or doubling down on lies and half truths. The teamwork, the absence of ego, the shared purpose and the grounded confidence that never gave way to arrogance. The determination to stand by each other and not to bow before pressure. My conviction is that England’s team reached the final not in spite of these values but because of them.
We’ve seen the uplifting results, doubly important in England after the last 18 months. I now want to look under the bonnet and learn how it was done. For me, it will be a pleasure to learn the lessons. Thank you, England’s team, for showing me a fantastic time! Congratulations, Italy! And roll on the World Cup!
- Jon Restell is chief executive of Managers in Partnership.