LATER this month it will be seven years since Gareth Southgate’s only brush with club management came to an end at the Riverside Stadium.

Back then he would never have imagined what would lie in front of him in 2016 … a four-match audition for one of the most important jobs in world football.

Whatever happens during the course of the next six weeks, he will have led England into World Cup qualifiers with Malta, Slovenia and Scotland as well as the prestige friendly with Spain.

The timing of this opportunity may have taken everyone by surprise, but he always seemed destined for such heights during his time with Middlesbrough.

From the moment he arrived from Aston Villa as Steve McClaren’s first signing in the summer of 2001, up until the night he left the Riverside having been ‘relieved of his duties’, his conduct, temperament and general intelligence made him a contender for the England job. The bookmakers will tell you that.

Even though he lost his job at Middlesbrough, who he had failed to prevent slipping out of the Premier League, he has still regularly been mentioned as a future England boss.

His success with the Under-21s over the last few years has put him into pole position, mainly through a lack of English alternatives, and has bought the Football Association time to consider all alternative options.

The Northern Echo: Gareth Southgate

Southgate will not be the universal choice of fans across the country to succeed Sam Allardyce, but he provides a steady pair of hands and it would be wrong to suggest he lacks experience.

The 46-year-old will be remembered as the man who took Middlesbrough down, but the bigger picture was that he took over when attendances were falling at the Riverside, so chairman Steve Gibson was looking to reduce costs accordingly after years of spending. Even Gibson has admitted since that he expected too much, too soon of the club’s former captain.

It subsequently took Middlesbrough seven years to reclaim a top-flight place and it will never be known whether he would have guided them straight back up; he was sacked with the team sitting fourth and just a point off the leaders.

The Northern Echo: Gareth Southgate with chairman Steve Gibson at Middlesbrough FC`s Riverside stadium

Prior to the relegation season (2008-09) he had operated reasonably well, leading Middlesbrough to 12th and 14th in the first two years after McClaren had been lured to take over England.

People forget, though, the pivotal role Southgate played in that final season under McClaren in keeping Middlesbrough in the Premier League.

The chances of Middlesbrough dropping into the second tier had grown as they pushed on into the latter stages of the FA Cup and UEFA Cup in 2006. Southgate, as the captain, rallied the dressing room despite disagreeing with aspects of McClaren’s management, which even saw a fan throw his season ticket at the boss during a home defeat to Aston Villa.

Southgate’s leadership behind-the-scenes saw him galvanise the mood. That was instrumental in Middlesbrough going onto to reach the FA Cup semi-final and the UEFA Cup final; a first European showpiece in the club’s history.

Southgate has that streak in him. He might be friendly, remember a face and be smooth in front of the cameras, but he also has another side which should serve him well as England chief, with the right men around him.

Southgate – accused of achieving nothing in management to warrant the job by many – is taking over a youthful England too. It is a national team no longer boasting the egos of when he was a player; full of Champions League and Premier League title winners.

He is still learning, but so will the players he names in his England squads – and he has worked with many of them at Under-21 level.

It will be a proud moment for Southgate when he walks out as England manager at Wembley for the first time on Saturday evening, it would be nice for him and the rest of the country if he can deliver for the longer term.