OCTOBER 2009, and Gareth Southgate was preparing to meet Steve Gibson in the boardroom at the Riverside Stadium in the wake of Middlesbrough’s 2-0 win over Derby County. With his side sitting in fourth position in the Coca-Cola Championship, just a point off the top of the table, Southgate was pondering whether it was a good time to ask for a striker on loan. Instead, an hour or so later, he was driving home having been sacked.

The following day, Southgate returned to Boro’s Rockliffe Park training ground, where he is currently overseeing England’s preparations for the forthcoming European Championships, to speak with chief executive Keith Lamb, who revealed he had already held discussions with Gordon Strachan. “Keith was lucky I’m calmer than some managers, as they might have taken a swing at him,” Southgate has subsequently said.

The future England manager had learned a valuable managerial lesson. Expect the unexpected, treat each day in the job as if it might be your last. Those mantras continue to ring true, but they are not the only things Southgate took from his whirlwind three years in charge of Middlesbrough, a period that Steve Gibson has subsequently described as an “ugly” task, but that ultimately proved the making of the England boss. Southgate might not have achieved what he wanted to as Middlesbrough manager, but he would almost certainly not be leading his country today had it not been for the managerial crash-course he received on Teesside.

IN many ways, Southgate’s Middlesbrough tenure was doomed from the start. He was not Gibson’s first choice for the role, but having lined up Terry Venables for a Riverside return, the Boro chairman found himself backed into an awkward corner when his preferred candidate unexpectedly backed out.

Southgate, who had recently lifted the Carling Cup to become the first Boro captain to claim a piece of major silverware, was regarded as the best alternative. A lack of coaching qualifications presented immediate problems, but Boro successfully lobbied the Premier League for a period of grace, arguing that as a recently-retired international, Southgate’s playing commitments had prevented him from embarking on the relevant coaching courses.

From the outset though, the former centre-half encountered problems. An immediate challenge was how best to make the transition from popular dressing-room team-mate to boss. “Everyone knew him as ‘Gate’, so it was weird to have to start calling him ‘gaffer’,” said David Wheater, who was beginning to make his way in the first team when Southgate was appointed.

Handling Boro’s emerging crop of youngsters was one thing – thanks to his playing exploits, Southgate was able to exert an immediate sense of authority over youngsters who understandably looked up to him – but managing senior professionals who had previously regarded themselves as his equal was always going to be more difficult. As Southgate has subsequently conceded, he didn’t always get it right, although crucial lessons about man-management, dialogue and honest communication were learned along the way.

There is a well-worn anecdote, almost certainly embellished over the years, about Ray Parlour receiving a dressing down after inquiring whether he could continue to call Southgate by his nickname, ‘Big Nose’, but it was in his relationship with Spanish international Gaizka Mendieta where Southgate concedes he struggled most.

“If I was playing him in my team now, I’d have him as a number eight or a ten and infield,” said Southgate, in a podcast with Spanish football expert Guillem Balague. “But back then, I didn’t have a clear image. As a coach who’d just finished playing, I didn’t have all (the answers) in my mind. So, I then had a senior player who I’d played with and who I have incredible respect for, but he wasn’t in the team. I look back and think I maybe didn’t manage that situation as well as I might have.

“There’ll be some players I managed in those first couple of years who have an opinion of me as a coach – Ray Parlour would be another – but they wouldn’t have known what I was going through day-to-day in terms of learning, developing and understanding. Three years down the line, I’d have handled those situations differently, and ten years down the line, you have so many more skills. As a coach, you learn from every training session, game or player you deal with.”

As he prepares to deliver some bad news to the seven players who will not make England’s final squad for the Euros this week, Southgate might well find himself thinking back to those days at Rockliffe when he struggled to tell senior players what they did not want to hear.

AS if having to learn on the job was not a hard enough task, Southgate also found himself leading Middlesbrough at a time of significant financial adjustment. Before he had taken charge of his first game, he watched Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Franck Queudrue, key members of the team that had played alongside him in the UEFA Cup final, leave. The following January, Ugo Ehiogu, Massimo Maccarone and Parlour departed. The next summer, Mark Viduka left to join Newcastle, and just before deadline day, an unsettled Ayegbeni Yakubu was sold to Everton for £11.5m.

Replacements arrived – Jason Euell, Lee Dong-Gook, Jeremie Aliadiere, Mido - but they were generally cut-price alternatives to the players that left. The exception was club-record signing Afonso Alves, but while Boro flashed the cheque book to sign the Brazilian, it proved an unsuccessful piece of business.

As a result, Southgate found himself having to turn to the academy, and having been so proactive in promoting youth during his time with Middlesbrough, it is surely no coincidence that his promotion within the FA came via a lengthy stint with the Under-21s or that his time as England’s first-team boss has seen the promotion of a host of emerging youngsters into the senior side.

In Southgate’s first season in charge at the Riverside, Stewart Downing cemented his position as a key senior performer, while Andrew Taylor, Lee Cattermole, James Morrison and Andrew Davies all became important members of the team. In his second campaign, which ended with an unforgettable 8-1 win over Sven Goran Eriksson’s Manchester City, a teenage Wheater became a regular at the back while Adam Johnson also forced his way into the first-team ranks.

By promoting so many youngsters, Southgate was taking a risk. But he also learned an important lesson about how to lead the kind of players he finds himself working with in the England camp. “If you are asking a young player to play with freedom and things go wrong, you can’t criticise them for doing the things you asked them to,” he explained. “Players look for clues – they’re working out if you genuinely believe what you say and whether you’ll stick to the message when under pressure at critical moments.”

As he concedes, there were times during Southgate’s Middlesbrough reign when he did not always get that right. But by learning from his mistakes, he was able to evolve into the manager he is today. Moulded at Middlesbrough, embellished with England. If Southgate becomes the first England boss to win the Euros this summer, his success will have been forged on Teesside.