Soccer fans know England’s 2001-2010 national team as one that never quite lived up to its potential. Dubbed a “Golden Generation”—a star-studded group of players that included Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and David Beckham—they had achieved enormous success at club level yet performed inconsistently in international competition, despite some impressive victories.
Now, as England continues its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, its current manager, Gareth Southgate, is launching a post-mortem on that disappointing era—one that will look at holistic factors like culture and environment—in order to understand the failures of the previous decade and avoid the same missteps today.
Southgate first thought to examine his organization’s past after listening to public statements by Lampard and several retired players, who reflected on that decade’s disappointments. Lampard, for example, had described being asked to play in a way that “did not get the best” out of him.
“It's important to get a feel of what those guys felt,” Southgate told ESPNFC. “They were a team that won so much in terms of their club careers on the biggest of stages and didn't quite get where they wanted to with England.”
His curiosity piqued by Lampard’s reflections, Southgate then spoke privately with another star player from the Golden Generation, Paul Scholes, whose observations echoed Lampard’s. “Paul admitted he didn't quite play the same way for England as he did with his club,” Southgate explained. “There's something around feeling comfortable, being comfortable with the environment.” Southgate plans to talk to more players from that era, possibly including Beckham and Rio Ferdinand.
Southgate intends to apply this knowledge in his management of the current team beyond just tactical adjustments. Though he sees today’s players as not yet at the level of the Golden Generation, his examination of that era has underscored the extent to which intangible factors will help to ensure that they continue to improve and play at their best. “I've got to think about the environment I create for the players to allow them to be as good as they can be, and the tactical system as well, but it is probably the mindset and environment as much as anything,” he noted.
The lesson, in other words, is that organizational culture matters, and that to understand that culture—what works and what doesn’t, what to remember and what to leave behind—one needs to look to the past for perspective. Will that insight pay off for England? It is too early to tell, although the team managed to hold its own on Saturday, at least, when it battled Scotland to a draw in a World Cup qualifier. But as Southgate and his squad look ahead to 2018 and beyond, listening to the voices from their team’s past can help them shape a better future.
Arielle Gorin, a Saybrook consultant, specializes in the history of the US and Canada. She is currently researching a history of the Ford Foundation.