When business became personal: Grimsby football agent Steven Firth's in-depth take on former client Gareth Southgate
By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 9 Jul 2018
HE’S the man who is leading England into today's World Cup Quarter Final, winning hearts and minds as he goes about it so gallantly, representing the country with dignity, grace, and sartorial style. For more than a decade Gareth Southgate was represented by Grimsby football agent Steven Firth, who gave David Laister an insight into a courageous character.
Few will know Gareth Southgate better, and few have more of an insight into the man so many’s hopes and dreams now depend upon.
The past week has seen him elevated from respected football manager to the absolute epitome of an English gent, having consoled a distraught Colombian before banishing the most personal of penalty nightmares with victory celebrations.
In a world where crisp, clean leaders are hard to find, where modesty and humility mostly appear missing, the FA have revealed an ace, and for Mr Firth it is no surprise.
“I predicted it. I think I told Geoff Ford or Stuart Rowson (the Telegraph’s former sports editor and soccer writer pairing) that two people would go on and manage England after 1998,” he said.
“One has, Gareth, and the other I got wrong, and it was David Platt.
Football agent Steven Firth, who once had England manager Gareth Southgate on his books
“You have got to understand that Gareth Southgate was brought up right, he was brought up with values and brought up to have respect and with personality and character. Now people are really seeing what Gareth is.
"The moment with the Colombian player at the end of the last match personified him – he has never been anything other than decent, he is just that type of guy.
“When you meet him and discuss things in a private moment, he is very friendly. He is a family man, he has got all those attributes that you want, and is someone you not only call a professional, of professionally for me a client, but also a friend, a colleague, someone you could call up and talk with, he is very, very decent.”
Southgate’s transfer to Middlesbrough from Aston Villa for a then sizeable £6.5 million was a highlight in Mr Firth’s own international career, having looked after the interests of some of the global game’s superstars.
The 64-year-old went from booking bands in the Grimsby-area to the national sport, having up to 50 professionals on his books in his time.
He recalled: “I first worked with Gareth when I was doing other transfer business at Aston Villa. I was down there working for a period of time, with Villa’s chief executive Steve Stride. I was at the training ground and he came and sat down and we spoke, then we spoke again the next day and got talking properly. He asked me what I did and I told him, and he said ‘you’re not like all the others’ and I remember that well.
"I represented two or three people there, then I got a phone call and it was to meet Gareth, to discuss his future.”
The midfielder-turned centre back had emerged at Crystal Palace, captaining them as they won what is now the Championship title in 1994, moving to Villa after The Eagles failed to maintain their Premiership status the following season.
England manager Gareth Southgate celebrates after winning the FIFA World Cup 2018, round of 16 match at the Spartak Stadium, Moscow
He had broken into the England side ahead of ‘football coming home’ for Euro 96 under Terry Venables.
The rest is now history, or at least Mr Firth hopes so. “It was just awful, awful,” Mr Firth said of Andreas Köpke’s save low to his right on a late Wembley night to end the semi-final and the closest England have got to glory in the then 30 years that now stands at 52.
“Is he going to exorcise that demon in the next few days? Who knows? It shows the measure of the man that he still feels that. People miss important penalties, but do they still feel them? Does Roberto Baggio, Franco Baresi, Stuart Pearce? I know what Gareth felt, and he has been fairly public about it.
“I think, no matter what happens, the penalty shoot-out against Colombia should have gone a long way to healing that. Will it ever completely? The only person who knows that is Gareth, in his private thoughts. If we go on and take the World Cup, who knows! Football is a funny thing.”
Assuring me he didn’t line up the famous Pizza Hut deal, “that was Chris Waddle,” he does recall another related incident he did witness at Elland Road.
Steven Firth has a signed England shirt from Gareth Southgate
“One of the funniest things was when he was signing autographs, having just scored two goals against Leeds. I’d taken my youngest son and we were waiting outside, and he was signing away. A guy came up with what looked like a rolled up rug, he unveiled it and it was an 8ft by 6ft picture of Gareth, with his head bowed down having missed the penalty, asking if he would sign it.
“I can’t tell you what he said, but it wasn’t a ‘yes of course mate’ ...but it was friendly-ish!
It certainly didn’t affect his football. At Villa he lifted the League Cup and played European football, featuring in every game of the Premier League season in 1998–99, and was an FA Cup Finalist the following season.
Then Steven’s professional services were required, and the Middlesbrough move was on.
“There were a lot of clubs expressing an interest, but like most transfers, some teams were saying he wasn’t right for them, and with Gareth, even that he was ‘too nice’.
“On the day he decided to go to Middlesbrough, I had a number of telephone calls, but contrary to speculation it wasn’t Manchester United. From memory Liverpool were talking, also Spurs. In the end he chose to go to Middlesbrough, with Steve McClaren, who was also coaching with England.”
The pair decided to end the professional relationship when he succeeded McClaren into the manager’s office, as he took the England job, umbrella and all.
“I stopped representing him when he became a manager,” he said. “We felt that relationship may be compromised. For me, personally, a manager or coach should not have an agent, but we have remained good friends ever since.”
Gareth Southgate, after making the Steven Firth instigated switch to Middlesbrough.
Despite that morally wholesome decision, the move up wasn’t without controversy. With no formal coaching qualifications, Middlesbrough had to argue that as an international player Southgate hadn’t had the time to take them, when he ended his 503-game career as a beaten UEFA Cup finalist in Holland in 2006, with 52 England caps to his name.
Three years with the Under-21s immediately preceded his ‘temporary’ drafting into his current role when new incumbent Sam Allardyce was embroiled in corruption, in football’s ‘annus horribilis’, having been dumped out of Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland two months previously.
Since then, he appears to have brought a real team spirit and mental strength to a young squad, while earning the admiration of the nation. And they have spoken while he has been in Russia.
“He has not put himself in isolation, banned phones or families,” Mr Firth said. “If we win, going towards the semi-finals I think the regime and the modus operandi in the regime will have to change.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He may just have to change what goes on out there!”
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