England: Gareth Southgate has FA’s confidence, says Debbie Hewitt

The Football Association has confidence in England manager Gareth Southgate, says his chairwoman Debbie Hewitt.

But in her first public comments since becoming FA chair last year, Hewitt praised Southgate’s “resilience and accountability”.

“Based on any facts on the pitch, he is the most successful England manager we’ve had for 55 years,” she said.

“But the bit people don’t see is the culture he’s created.

“Prior to Gareth being the manager there was not the pride of wearing the England shirt. There was a club rivalry we would read about, players not getting on.

“He’s changed that beyond recognition and I’ve seen that for myself.

“I’ve worked in business and Gareth’s skills, his high IQ, would make him a chief executive in any sphere.

“That resilience and accountability. There’s no sloped shoulders, and that’s what you want in an England manager.”

Since taking charge in 2016, Southgate has led England to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and then a first European Championship final last year.

Hewitt said she had spoken to Southgate to reassure him after the poor recent results and backed the FA’s decision last year to extend the 51-year-old a contract extension to 2024, rather than waiting until after this winter’s World Cup in Qatar.

“I think that’s a bit of a red herring, in a sense, because I don’t think we would be discussing it had we not had the recent series of games,” she said.

“Clearly we did that with proper discussion and thought. The fact there’s been a stumble does not make us automatically say ‘should we have given him a contract?’

“We have confidence in Gareth for all the reasons I described and I think that’s the important thing. And it’s particularly important going into the biggest tournament.

“Gareth’s reaction (to her call), as in everything with that sort of conversation, what that it is his accountability, that there’s always something to learn.

“That’s why it’s refreshing working with somebody like that because that openness to learn is quite remarkable and quite unusual in any sphere.”

‘Migrant workers said they want us to shine a light’

Hewitt also addressed the pressure the England team is coming under from campaigners in terms of deciding how to help safeguard the rights of migrant workers in Qatar.

Accusations of human rights abuses have plagued the hosts since they were awarded the tournament in 2010.

England captain Harry Kane has said he is talking to his international team-mates about whether they can make some form of protest, and the FA is known to be considering backing calls for a migrant worker center in Doha as well as more compensation for bereaved families .

“The context is not straightforward,” Hewitt said. “I’ve been to Qatar three times and I would say there’s a positive to come from a World Cup being held there.

“It’s an opportunity to give the migrant workers there a voice, that’s the way they see it. Having seen where they work and live, and heard some experiences they’ve had, we asked the question outright; ‘would you rather we boycott, or come and shine a light?’

“A number I spoke to said ‘we want you to shine a light’. I do think it’s important to unite with other federations.

“As far as the team is concerned, they are playing in Qatar and it’s inevitable they will be asked questions about human rights.

“In fact, they are curious and want to learn and want to think about the best way that they can make a difference – they shine a light, they are role models and they want to be informed.

“So we are spending our time educating them in the issues and educating ourselves in the issues. And ultimately we will discuss with the team and with Gareth what we feel is the best statement we can make, particularly about leaving behind a legacy with the rest of our football colleagues internationally.”

Mark Bullingham, the FA’s chief executive, added: “We have a Uefa working group on that exact topic. We’re flying out to Qatar this Sunday to work on that with all the countries that have qualified.

“We are looking at two things: first, what is the legacy program, and second, what is any symbolic gesture that we collectively would like to make.

“We would hope to be able to give an update on that after we’ve spoken to the players in the wake of that workshop.”

Transgender athletes ‘a really tricky subject’

Speaking on the day International Rugby League announced transgender players have at least temporarily been banned from women’s internationals, Hewitt said the debate about the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s sport is “a really tricky subject”.

On Sunday it was announced Fina, swimming’s world governing body, voted to stop transgender athletes from competing in women’s elite races and Fifa, football’s world governing body, has now confirmed it is reviewing its gender eligibility regulations.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has said she will be speaking to sports governing bodies about the issue and will urge them to follow Fina’s lead.

“We talk about inclusion but it has to be inclusive for everybody and it has to be fair,” said Hewitt. “That’s the line that any sports administrator has to think about.

“Is the competition fair and are we making sure it is inclusive on both sides?”

Bullingham added: “We have our own policy with grassroots that we are working on at the moment and Fifa is doing a consultation for the elite of the game. There might be a slightly different approach to grassroots than you would have for elite.”

Clubs want ‘complete alignment’ on fan sanctions

England failed to win any of their four Nations League games over the last fortnight and the 0-0 draw with Italy at Molineux on 11 June was played behind closed doors as punishment for crowd unrest at Wembley Stadium during last summer’s Euro 2020 final.

There were also a number of pitch invasions following games in England towards the end of the domestic season, with incidents of supporters attacking players, and Hewitt said it was a “worrying and ugly trend”.

“The pitch is sacred and players, match officials and coaches have to be able to play in a safe environment,” she added.

“If you look at some of the footage at the end of last season, it was disturbing and anything but safe for those players and indeed for some of those fans that invaded the pitch.

“It’s a huge concern and we are working in the FA to put in place the toughest possible sanctions that we can.

“I was at a session with all of the Premier League clubs a week or so ago and every club in that room was [saying] ‘we have to put in place tougher sanctions’. There was absolutely no resistance. It was complete and utter alignment on what we need to do.”

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