A dozen years on, Justin Hoyte still keeps the letter in a safe place. It was delivered to him at Middlesbrough shortly after Gareth Southgate was sacked and the first thing that came to mind, given how fraught the situation must have been, was the rare humanity of the gesture.
“I’ve had a lot of managers and there’s never been another that sent me a personal note like that,” Hoyte says of the message scribed by Southgate, who had brought him in from Arsenal the previous year. “It was wonderful that he’d even consider doing it. He said it was great to work with me and that hopefully we’d work together again down the line, and that I’d do well under the next coach. It just shows you the character he is, and the man you see today.”
Hoyte was not alone. Robert Huth left Boro for Stoke a few weeks earlier, offered a quick return to the top flight while his former club absorbed the effects of relegation. Before joining from Chelsea he had been won over by Southgate’s effort in driving to London and making an impassioned sales pitch; upon departing he received a handwritten note from his old manager. “You don’t get that a lot, believe me,” he says. “He wished me luck, nailed down a few points where I could improve, told me I had another 10 or 12 years’ playing ahead of me and that if I ever needed anything I just had to call. I was only 25 and it was a great thing.”
Southgate and his players had experienced an enormous disappointment. Middlesbrough kept their heads above water in the first two seasons after Steve Gibson, the chairman, had gambled upon appointing his 35-year-old club captain to replace the England-bound Steve McClaren. An ageing squad had just reached the Europa League final and Southgate was tasked with freshening things up, Gibson later admitting the situation was “greatly unfavourable to him”. But they ran out of road in 2008-09, finishing three points shy of survival and counting the cost of a disastrous mid-season run. The writing was on the wall after that 14-game winless streak and Huth, one of Southgate’s first signings, felt demotion was a consequence of the repair job the young coach had been asked to oversee.
“In his last year it just became too much for us to handle,” he says. “At the time it was a rebuild, we’d had older players in the squad and the club wanted to go a different way. Players were on huge money back in the day: Middlesbrough had a couple of years in Europe and to attract players they had to pay over the odds. Gareth had to deal with the fallout and, as you see at many clubs, when you go down that road you often have to go down and regenerate properly.”
Southgate was asked to cut Boro’s wage bill by £7m before their relegation season but nonetheless Huth remembers a “tough atmosphere” at the Riverside, pointing out they were booed off at half-time against Spurs in the opening game with the score goalless. They would win 2-1 but it was downhill from there; by March 2009 supporters were openly chanting for Southgate’s dismissal. Although Huth and Hoyte emphasise Southgate never lost the dressing room, the point arrived where everyone understood their fate.
“With three or four games left we kind of knew we were going to go,” Huth says. “The spirit was still there and I felt Gareth held it together really well; you never felt he was struggling. But it’s never easy when you know you’re going down.”
Hoyte agrees. “Going down really affected the mood in the camp,” he says. “But he still had everyone on board. It was a young team and we wanted to try and get back up with him. Being honest, we probably weren’t good enough to stay up but he never went out and blamed us – he knew from his own career how to deal with difficulty.”
Southgate’s mix of light and shade went down well. Hoyte says he “didn’t really shout but when he did you knew about it”, while Huth paints a picture of a steely personality beneath the personable exterior.
“He was tough and fair,” he says. “Yeah, he’s a nice guy, but I can remember him constructively telling me how shit I was, in a nice way. Sometimes you need to hear that as a player and he certainly wasn’t afraid to do it. In meetings there was no hiding place, he told you how it is and then moved on. I think that’s a massive skill. He’s obviously very TV friendly but wouldn’t hold back if something needed to be said or done.
“If you’d had a really bad game, on the way to the training pitch that Monday he’d just walk next to you and go, ‘Wasn’t the best, was it, at the weekend?’ and try to take the edge off it. I always found him to be really decent.”
Southgate was sacked after a 2-0 win over Derby, watched by a half-full Riverside that perhaps spooked Gibson. At that point Boro were a point off leaders Newcastle and there was a sense the ship was turning. “Everyone was shocked,” Hoyte says. “We were sitting in the dressing room happy we’d won. Then as everyone was leaving, 15 or 20 minutes later, some calls went around and we heard he’d been sacked. We couldn’t believe it. I still speak to some of the players now and we agree that, if he’d stayed, we’d have gone back up.” That did not happen under Gordon Strachan, who Hoyte says worked with a markedly different style, and Boro have never returned to their old heights.
Huth believes that, if Southgate had his time again, he might not have leapt straight into management. “I think he’d have taken a year or two off. At the start he was dealing with ex-teammates who’d been to battle with him and were perhaps even older. I think some of them, although maybe not Gareth himself, found it difficult going from being mates to stuff like, ‘I’ve got to fine you for being late’, little things like that. But he learned on the job.”
Such an early relegation can condemn a manager but, as Southgate prepares to make history with England on Sunday, Hoyte says it was possible to foresee the extraordinary story that followed.
“There were similar things in his mindset to those I saw in Arsène Wenger,” he says. “Now I look back and can see why it’s worked out for him, and I’m so happy it’s gone that way after the disappointment at Middlesbrough. I feel proud he’s become such a huge figurehead for England.”
Huth feels the same, even if he admits the sentiment came with caveats when Southgate masterminded the win over his native Germany. “You get a bit of a shiver down your spine when people you worked with and had a good relationship do well,” he says. Those letters, and the time Southgate spent writing them, seem all the more precious now.