Whakapapa: the Maori belief helping Gareth Southgate find England's identity

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Gareth Southgate, Manager of England poses for a photo at St George's Park on June 09, 2021 - FA via GETTY IMAGES
Gareth Southgate, Manager of England poses for a photo at St George's Park on June 09, 2021 - FA via GETTY IMAGES

When Gareth Southgate’s players came to receive their red legacy number caps at St George’s Park this week, they gathered in the auditorium to watch a video that goes to the very heart of an approach their manager believes will define the national team for years to come.

It was designed to convey to them something bigger than how they might beat Croatia, or even progress to the latter stages of Euro 2020 – instead it was about what it meant to play for England. Next year will mark 150 years of the national team, which has so far encompassed 1,014 games, 1,262 players and one trophy. The question that has been asked often by Southgate in meetings and discussions at the Football Association is a simple one. Do English footballers have a concept of what it means to play for England? Does anyone?

The video was not intended as a stern reminder of the great traditions of warm beer and stiff upper lips. Instead it tried to place the players’ current experience in the context of all that history, to explain a theory that Southgate has adopted on the development of a strong team culture. He has done so with Ian Mitchell, the team’s psychologist; Bryce Cavanagh its head of performance and the consultant Owen Eastwood. The latter is an expert in developing team cultures whose recent book Belonging, Southgate has referenced in his most in-depth pre-tournament interview with presenter Jake Humphrey.

In Belonging, Eastwood – a New Zealander of Maori heritage - sets out the Maori belief of “Whakapapa”, that each generation is linked across the ages to its ancestors and descendants and that each has its opportunity to shine before the torch moves on. It is a key part of the All Blacks rugby team’s success and their culture of selflessness. Curious to learn about English football, Eastwood interviews Michael Owen who tells him that the England teams he played in “there was never any mention of the team’s history, nor what it was to be English”.

Instead, Owen describes a culture of fear – of condemnation from a disapproving media or fan base. He recalls a time when Sven-Goran Eriksson tried to adapt to a slower passing style. “We would be criticised for a lack of passion and showing no fight,” Owen tells Eastwood. “Some players found it easier to give in and play in the traditional way so we would not be criticised.”

England's striker Marcus Rashford (2R) celebrates scoring his team's first goal with England's defender Tyrone Mings (3R) during the international friendly football match between England and Romania at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, north-east England on June 6, - GETTY IMAGES
England's striker Marcus Rashford (2R) celebrates scoring his team's first goal with England's defender Tyrone Mings (3R) during the international friendly football match between England and Romania at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, north-east England on June 6, - GETTY IMAGES

The point is made in the book that because England teams – players, managers, FA – have never tried to establish a set of beliefs or identity, that void has been filled by others.

The video the players were shown privately this week began with Cuthbert Ottaway, the old Etonian whose legacy number – the newly introduced unique chronological number assigned to each player who wins a cap - is nine. A brilliant all-round sportsman and lawyer who was England’s first captain, he died in 1878 aged 27. The video went through the decades, taking in the greats of the England teams and also those who paved the way for black and biracial players. Viv Anderson, John Barnes, Paul Ince – and before them all Laurie Cunningham, who was the first black player to represent England at Under-21s level before Anderson’s senior debut.

It was described by those who saw it as a powerful moment for the young squad. The players, as well as Southgate and his assistant Chris Powell, both former internationals themselves, were handed their red caps with their legacy numbers embossed. Speaking to the FATV crew afterwards, it is possible to hear the echoes of the Belonging theory in Southgate’s words.

“We are part of England’s history,” he said. “There is a longer history than just us so [we must] have the humility to recognise where we are in that journey. But also make the most of that moment and leave the team in a better place after the tournament than we found it. Every player will feel very special to have that opportunity … as a group there were some emotional conversations but we wanted that.”

Later in his interview, Southgate returned to the theme that Eastwood identifies in his book as crucial to the team culture of “Us” - of being part of something bigger and doing one’s best over a small part in its history. “We want to connect to the public and part of that is recognising that we are no more special than anybody who has been before us or anybody that will come after us,” Southgate says. “But we want to make the most of the moment that we have.”

Legacy numbers have long been part of sport, with the All Blacks and the England cricket team among those who have adopted them. Within Southgate’s staff it was Andy Walker, his communications manager, who first floated the idea for the England football team and pushed for the resources to research and launch it. It was introduced to mark the England team’s 1,000th game against Montenegro in November 2019.

Uefa gave special dispensation for England to wear their legacy numbers in the Montenegro game but Fifa rules do not permit it on a permanent basis so the number will now be stitched into players’ shirt collars. At 1,262 Sam Johnstone, a debutant against Romania last Sunday is the most recent. From the team’s Victorian roots, another goalkeeper, Robert Barker, has No 1. He was the proverbial first name on the team-sheet for the first international against Scotland in 1872.

In November 2022, as the Qatar World Cup approaches, England will celebrate 150 years of the national team, and that anniversary may well arrive with still just the one major trophy in all that time. Of course, an understanding of one’s place in history, a willingness to shape the identity of the team you play in rather than allowing it to be done by external forces will not guarantee England win Euro 2020. But as Southgate’s reign has shown, he is interested in fundamental changes to the English football mindset that he believes will better equip his players to perform on the pitch.