John Barnes: No one thought 'model pro' Gareth Southgate would become a manager

Former England international gives his views on the current manager, how that role has changed over the years, and why World Cup expectations should be tempered

John Barnes believes England should be aiming to reach the 2022 World Cup semi-finals. Antonie Robertson / The National
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For a time in his playing days, he was known as “Model”, as in “model professional”.

Latterly, Gary Neville has termed him “England’s greatest asset” because of the job he has done as manager.

Overseeing the most successful period for England’s men's national team since 1966 means Gareth Southgate is afforded no shortage of respect.

Semi-finalists at the last World Cup. European Championships finalists three years later. And a campaign ripe with possibilities in Qatar to follow at the end of this year.

So did Southgate always appear destined for such high achievement? Not so, according to John Barnes, his former England squad-mate.

“Gazza [Paul Gascoigne] would say he was boring,” Barnes said of Southgate. “Calling him model pro wasn’t a good thing, because he wasn’t out with the rest of the lads.

“Now it would be like, ‘Look at him, he’s a model pro, isn’t he good?’ Back then, it was like, ‘Flippin’ hell, Gareth, let’s go out.’

“Back then, you wouldn’t have thought Gareth would go on to be a manager. You wouldn’t look at him and think, because he’s a model pro he’d make a good manager.

“Even managers who were great managers back then went out with the lads. Kenny Dalglish was one of the lads, and he won the double. Because times have changed, Gareth is a typically modern manager.”

The international careers of Barnes and Southgate overlapped briefly. The former was phased out of the reckoning just as Southgate was building towards his fateful Euro 96 campaign.

He is unlike any of the managers Barnes played under in his own illustrious 79-cap career, according to the former Liverpool star. Barnes reckons Southgate’s great feat has been in maximising the potential of the players available to him.

“He understands what players need,” said Barnes, who was speaking at the Premier Inn in Barsha Heights in Dubai in his role promoting the hotel chain.

“He doesn’t shout and scream. He couldn’t have been a manager back then because that is what you had to do. It is how you got results. You managed out of fear. Terry Venables was the first who didn’t manage out of fear, in terms of saying, ‘You do what I say.’

“Modern managers have to bring the players along with them rather than beating them over the head saying, ‘You do what I say.’”

Barnes points out that the football landscape in which Southgate now operates is a world away from that which he started out his own career.

The idea of pandering to multimillionaire players back then would have been anathema to the likes of Graham Taylor, his club boss at Watford who was later his national team’s manager, too.

Gareth Southgate led England to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals and Euro 2020 final. PA

“Graham Taylor took Watford from the fourth division to the first,” Barnes said. “When we finished second to Liverpool in our first year in the first division, 75 per cent of the players had come from the fourth division.

“He could inspire a group of players to come together. He didn’t like superstars in the team. He couldn’t handle Gazza and people like that, because he believed that everybody was the same, and had to be part of the team.

“When you are with England, there are different characters. You have superstar players who maybe you feel, or the public feel, are more important than the lesser players. With Graham Taylor, you wouldn’t have that.

“When I played for England, and Luther Blissett and I were the only two internationals, I would come back to Watford during the week and the experienced substitute centre back who had played for the club in the fourth division was more important than me.

1984:  John Barnes of England starts a run on the goal during the international match against Brazil played at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. England won the match 2-0. \ Mandatory Credit: David  Cannon/Allsport

“I couldn’t say anything. I would have to be subservient to them. We understood the experienced players are more important. Yes, you are playing for England, but you are no more important than Steve Sims, who played all his career and Watford and was never going to play for England. That is the way I was brought up.”

England return to action on Friday when they face Italy in the Nations League, a competition in which their recent struggles have taken some of the sheen from Southgate’s work. Barnes, though, retains faith.

“Why should England win [the World Cup] when we are not the best in the world?” Barnes said. “What we should do is maximise our potential. We should be getting to the semi-finals at least.

“Then we could go on to win it, but to go on to say it is a disappointment if we don’t is wrong because we have to respect the other teams who are in it. You can’t ask any more of Gareth.”

Updated: September 28, 2022, 8:33 AM