FA guru John McDermott claims England’s long wait for a major trophy could soon end
John McDermott appreciates that victors have a tendency to be overly magnanimous. Showering a defeated opponent with praise is another way of congratulating yourself on being brilliant.
Yet the relationships the FA’s technical director has built up over more than 30 years in the professional game, working for Watford, Tottenham and the FA, mean that some professional players are trusted friends and candid even when opponents.
And it was speaking with a France player in the Al Bayt Stadium on the night of December 10, in the aftermath of England’s 2-1 defeat in the World Cup quarter-finals by France, that the reality of how close Gareth Southgate’s team are to winning the World Cup truly crystallised in McDermott’s mind.
Not that he didn’t know it before. The evidence of the game, the progress through the tournament and over the years with Southgate means there is data which objectively says England are but a step away from that major trophy.
But this conversation confirmed it. ‘After the France game, the feeling in the camp [was] of surprise: surprise by our own players [that we lost],’ said McDermott.
FA technical director John McDermott revealed his thoughts on Gareth Southgate’s successor
McDermott also spoke on the fallout from England’s World Cup elimination last year
McDermott hinted that the Three Lions wait for a major trophy since 1966 could soon be at an end
‘And it wasn’t just the belief of our players. I was sat on steps with one of the French players and it was like, “Wow, we were on the rocks there”. There is a real belief that we are good enough and our players believe that we can win the next tournament and believe that we could have won in Qatar.
‘There is tangible data in what this team is doing. They are accumulating evidence that we can win and that we are going to win. There is that inner belief but also something I sense when I am with the players and in the camp, that it is not faux. There is a genuine, authentic belief that this group of lads are going to do it.’
That result against France and the broadly positive feedback that this was a team but a step away set off a domino effect that would make McDermott’s life a little easier in the short term. When it comes to choosing England managers, McDermott is now the key football voice in the FA building. With chief executive Mark Bullingham, he would lead the search for a new manager.
Had the reaction to Southgate’s World Cup been overwhelmingly negative, Southgate would have gone. And even given his decision to stay, his contract ends in December 2024, six months after next summer’s Euros and McDermott always needs to have a potential alternative.
‘What happens next is always going to be on your mind. It would be remiss of any of us in a leadership position not to be thinking about that,’ he said.
‘June had been tough before the World Cup, September was tough, [there were] a lot of unknowns. I saw Gareth grow out there. He enjoyed it. You probably saw that publicly but privately as well, the way he was with the players, he was in his absolute element.
‘Obviously, in the end I was delighted for him that he wanted to continue. At the time, did it [his succession] take up some of my thinking? Yes. Does it now? Probably not as much because we are now secure and have got off to a brilliant start and looking forward now to hopefully qualify for Germany and Euro 2024.
‘And then Gareth’s got six months on his contract after the end of the tournament in Germany as well. It does not take up a lot of my head space at the moment.
McDermott claimed that Southgate’s future does not concern him ahead of Euro 2024
Southgate’s Three Lions crashed out in the last-eight against France at the Qatar World Cup
‘Gareth is a 100 per cent authentic in wanting to do the right thing for the team, I have no doubt about that. When he was sensing the heat that is coming on him [his thought was]: is that diluting the experience of the players?
‘We came into the last window of international games thinking we haven’t beaten Italy away since 1963, this is going to be a tough gig, Ukraine are going to beat some teams, they are excellent. We believed in our players but were wondering where the mind-set would be. Gareth is very sensible and very much trying to feel is he the right person, is this the right thing for him? But at the moment and the rebound after France game, thankfully I think he’s in a really good place.’
The fact that the contract runs until December 2024 is designed to take the heat out of a possible succession. ‘That was the thought behind it. Gareth is very introspective and after the Euros, he needs time to digest. He’s very thoughtful and I’m very respectful of that.
‘I’ve worked with managers who are more instinctive, impulsive. And and I’ve worked with managers and coaches who need time to ponder and think and work it out, both come up with good decisions I think it’s working out how everybody works.’
Whoever Southgate’s successor is, they will also need the political skills often demanded of an England manger, to comment on the multiple human rights issues in which players and the association can be embroiled.
‘That ability to be immersed in the English game and what it means to answer these questions — I think a lot of coaches in the club game are having to deal with this too: what it means to be the mouthpiece for their club. I think that’s what [club] owners will be looking for as well
‘Whatever club or organisation you’re at, you’re asking, what’s the cultural fit? He [Gareth] is widely read, he’s intelligent, he’s passionate. He works hard in his thinking to be able to deal with a lot of those issues.
‘And I think part of my job and the people around — and I think these two are really good at it — is to try and filter a lot, so that he can think and he can concentrate and prioritise his thinking.’
England’s Under-20’s will travel to Argentina for the age bracket’s World Cup tournament
If the England men and women’s teams are the shiny public workings of the FA, McDermott’s job is attending to work under the bonnet that keeps the car on the road. England’s Under-20 men’s team fly out this week to take part in the Under 20 World Cup in Argentina, where they will be among the favourites.
Before going there, McDermott will catch up with the Under-17 team at their Euros in Hungary. In late June, the Under-21s will be in Romania and Georgia for their Euros. In between, the senior men have a Euro qualifier in Malta and at home to North Macedonia.
McDermott, who was appointed in October 2020, was previously the head of Tottenham’s academy and oversaw the development of Harry Kane, Harry Winks and Ryan Mason among others. Prior to that he was at Watford.
Ensuring that England’s young players get opportunities in a multicultural league, acknowledged by many to the best most competitive in the world, is part of the FA’s brief but McDermott does not believe a quota system for English players is the way forward.
‘There’s only 1,012 places available every week: 11 x 92. There’s always been competition and we’re not in position to put in quotas.
‘Our job as developers is when young players are getting a little bit lost or finding it hard to navigate through and hitting obstacles, is trying to help players make sense of it and keep the psychological stamina and to keep going.’
And there is no linear curve which sees a 14-year-old progress to become a world star. ‘I would have never known at 14 that Kane would become Kane [today]. I think if somebody says they would have said that, I think they’re a liar. Similarly, when I was younger working with Ashley Young, I didn’t see that talent.
‘To see them grow and his capacity to learn, Harry’s resilience to go to Orient on loan, go to Millwall, to work his way in, Leicester, Norwich, not so good, to come back and fight against Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor, to break into the Spurs team: mentally incredible and very, very diligent.’
England’s Young Lions were on top of the world in 2017 as they won the Under-17 World Cup
England’s age-group teams may provide an early indicator of the health of the next generation but it’s not always quite that simple.
England’s Under-17s won the World Cup in 2017 to huge acclaim but only Phil Foden has gone on to become an established international, though Conor Gallagher and Jadon Sancho are knocking on the door and Callum Hudson-Odoi, Emile Smith Rowe and Marc Guehi have been capped by Southgate.
McDermott added: ‘I don’t think winning international youth tournaments give you any guarantees, because all of a sudden Jude Bellingham comes from Birmingham City [and overtakes everyone].
‘Of course we want wining age-group teams I think it’s a fantastic experience for them to play best with best. But there’s more to winning the U17s or U19s. Those players have then got to go through the loan system, through the first team system and survive so many obstacles and thrive despite so many obstacles.’