Gareth Southgate has always struck me as a pretty decent bloke.
The former Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa defender is clearly self-aware too. Four years ago, in the summer of 2013, he was on the verge of being appointed as Sheffield United’s new manager following Danny Wilson’s departure from Bramall Lane. Chris Morgan had acquitted himself well in a caretaker capacity but, after losing to Yeovil Town in the League One play-off semi-finals, the club’s board of directors decided a change of direction was required and Southgate emerged as their preferred candidate. Unfortunately for them, following several rounds of exploratory talks, he decided his knowledge of the division was not up to scratch and politely declined the offer. David Weir was eventually appointed instead and Southgate went on to accept a position with the FA which, 12 months ago, led to him taking charge of England. It was a story I reported on at the time and was reminded of earlier last week when the 47-year-old, whose cognizance has apparently deserted him, acknowledged that several members of his latest England squad did not warrant being in the team. Even accounting for a glut of untimely injuries, something Southgate lamented when his selections for the final round of World Cup qualifiers were unveiled, it was a bizarre admission. And one which, albeit inadvertently, confirmed why David Brooks made the right choice by turning his back on the country of his birth and pledging his allegiance to Wales instead.
This evening, when Chris Coleman’s side visit Georgia for their penultimate Group D tie, the Sheffield United youngster could win a first senior international cap less than three weeks after making his full league debut. Either way, whether he features in the game or not, Brooks has done well simply by being in Tblisi. He is, having spent the past week rubbing shoulders with the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, unlikely to harbour any regrets.
Brooks, of course, represented England at last summer’s Toulon Tournament and was named player of the competition. So why did Wales, who had tried to call him up themselves, eventually win the battle for his services? The answer is simple: by making him feel wanted and, by offering him a place in the under-21 set-up, granting him an opportunity. England, as Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s sudden elevation into the Young Lions set-up proved following his move to Everton from Bramall Lane, are too often blinded by status, a player’s parent club, and reputation.
Coleman, who has also persuaded Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn to remain with The Dragons, has shown a keen eye for talent and, together with his friend and confident Robert Page, identifying it ahead of the curve. Chris Wilder, Alan Knill and Paul Mitchell have shown exactly the same qualities in the transfer market at United. Like Coleman, instil a sense of belonging in their charges too. Brooks might be nearly 3,000 miles away right now but, given the similarities between the two set-ups, he will feel very much at home.
Meanwhile, on a different but not entirely unconnected note, there are strong links between Welsh football and the Boris Paichadze National Stadium, where tonight’s game will be played. The ground, which used to be called the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Dinamo Stadium, was inaugurated on 29 September 1976 with a game between Dynamo Tblisi and Cardiff City. The Georgians, who three years later would stun Liverpool in the European Cup, triumphed 3-0.