Heskey: Southgate has always been a fantastic leader

Emile Heskey has applauded the leadership qualities Gareth Southgate showcased as a player and believes he’s the man to stop them underachieving at major tournaments. Southgate captained the three clubs he represented as a player – namely Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough – and skippered an England side featuring a young Heskey in a 1-1 draw with Korea Republic in a 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ warm-up.

Despite his relative inexperience, the former centre-back was, after guiding the Three Lions to seven points from a possible nine in Russia 2018 qualifying, and an encouraging friendly draw with Spain, while in temporary charge, appointed permanent manager on Wednesday.

“It’s a tough time for England now,” said Heskey. “It’s a massive transitional period. There’s a lot of young players, a lot of talent, and trying to get them to play as a cohesive unit – being as one as opposed to individuals – is hard.

“That’s where Gareth Southgate comes in. He has been around for such a long time that he has an understanding of the players on a personal level and that will help them into the senior squad.

“Gareth was great. There was a lot of senior pros when I came through in the England set-up and they were great for younger players like me. They were good leaders, good talkers, and great within the changing rooms.

“Changing rooms are different now, much quieter now. But there were leaders then. Some players are naturally born leaders. Gareth was and Martin Keown as well, giving advice, telling players to keep going, keep heads up.

“People like Gareth are good at giving advice, really trying to inspire young players. He was fantastic when I first got in. I always felt Gareth had the quality to be a manager. Even when he went to Middlesbrough, he showed those qualities.

“Defenders are different, they are natural leaders anyway. You see everything from the back there. I’m of the belief that forwards don’t make the best captains because the majority of forwards are very selfish, and you have to be. In essence you are not thinking of the team, you are thinking about yourself, and Gareth was not like that. You lead from the back, they are your leaders, and you could see that with Gareth.

“It’s a difficult task for every England manager and you could be a seasoned manager, the best manager ever or someone younger. Either way, it’s a very difficult job. You look at some managers and they are able to get the best out of certain players. Martin O’Neill had that knack with Leicester and I hope Gareth can do the same with England."

Big-show woes England have strolled to qualification for major tournaments in recent years, and they are once again in pole position to claim Group F’s ticket to Russia 2018 – they are two points above Slovenia and four clear of third-placed Slovakia. However, the Three Lions have not gone beyond the quarter-finals of a World Cup since David Platt, Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker and Co reached the last four at Italy 1990, while they haven’t competed in the UEFA EURO semi-finals since a Southgate penalty miss condemned them to elimination by Germany on home soil in 1996.

“We know we can qualify – that’s not a problem,” said Heskey. “But when it comes to the actual tournaments we don’t know where we are because we’ve still not got it right. I went to the Iceland game during the EUROs and it was so frustrating. I watched the game in the stadium with a friend of mine, we went 1-0 up after five minutes and I said to him, ‘We can win this 5-0’. But when they scored I knew we were in trouble because I could see the fear in the lads’ faces. We never looked like coming back because you could see the players were stricken with fear.

“It’s something that Gareth will have to look into and try to piece it together. Qualification has never been a problem. But then expectations are still high when you reach the tournaments, especially when England tend to qualify so comfortably. You’re suddenly expected to go and win or reach the final. When you play for a big nation, expectations are always high. I don’t think the expectations weighed on our shoulders as much as it does now.

“But Gareth believes he’s ready for it and I think he’s got the right mentality, because he knows from his own experience from playing for England about what mentality it takes.”