Andy Woodman was England manager's best man and is proud of Southgate

‘Gareth laughed when I told him he’d become a national treasure. Well, he is now!’: Andy Woodman was England manager’s best man and is proud of how he handled the Three Lions’ Euros adventure and their heartbreaking exit

  • Southgate’s friend Woodman says the England boss made him a better person
  • Southgate and Woodman were both the best man at each other’s weddings 
  • Woodman says he deserves every accolade and that he’s the same now as at 14
  • He is not sure people appreciate how much the boss has carried on his shoulders
  • He also says Southgate has shown footballers that they don’t need to be flashy 

What sort of man do you become with a Gareth Southgate in your life? ‘A better one,’ says his best mate (and perhaps biggest fan) Andy Woodman.

He is talking from personal experience first, then in the wider sense. ‘I dread to think the path I would have gone down without him, particularly when my mother died and I was lost and a bit broken. But I had him there, keeping me right. It’s what Gareth does. You saw it with the England team — it was a broken team when he took that job on. Maybe the country was broken, too. I’m not saying it’s fixed yet but, crikey, look what he has achieved.’

He references that powerful image of Gareth hugging the young Buyako Saka, whose penalty miss sealed England’s fate. ‘Those boys cannot be in safer hands now.’

Gareth Southgate’s friend Andy Woodman says the England boss made him a better person

England manager Gareth may have the plum job (although it must seem like a poisoned chalice, given the fallout from England’s losing on those oh-so-significant penalties), but Andy also manages a team, National League club Bromley.

The pair go back a long way. They met when they were 14, ambitious young players both dreaming of football glory. Gareth was Andy’s best man, and vice versa. They holiday together, are godfathers to each other’s children and have been together ‘through life’s ups and downs’.

Andy watched the Euros final while wearing his treasured Rolex watch — a gift from Gareth. They had made a promise when they were starting out, that whoever got their big break first would buy the other a gold watch, they agreed. Gareth kept his word.

Of course, Andy messaged his mate immediately after the game to express his disappointment — and pride. When he ‘touched base’ with Gareth the following day, the hoped-for jubilation about England’s victory had given way to a national feeling that was much more complicated. Pride was mixed with shame, over the racist trolling of the three young players who had missed their penalties.

They met when they were 14, ambitious young players both dreaming of football glory

The pair even played with each other – winning the Division 1 Championship (above)

‘Disgusting,’ he says, of the racist underbelly that was laid bare. ‘And it has come from the same people who’d have jumped for joy when Raheem Sterling scored a goal.’

At the same time, Gareth was facing trolling of his own. Should he have put these youngsters in such a position? Would he resign? The fickle nature of football — where one minute the manager of a national team can be hailed as a future PM, the next painted as a villain — was again apparent.

‘Preposterous,’ says Andy. ‘It’s actually laughable. Our country hadn’t been near a final for 50 years! They’re the best national team we’ve had in my lifetime — and still there are people saying he should go? What are they thinking?

Gareth was Andy’s best man, and vice versa. They holiday together, are godfathers to each other’s children and have been ‘through life’s ups and downs’ together

‘I’m not sure people appreciate how much he has been carrying on his shoulders. He’s been on the go for weeks with the team, with the country. I know Gareth. His first concern will be with those boys and making sure they are OK, but he needs to look after himself, too. When we touched base I just said I hoped he was going to take some time with the family, have a holiday.’

Possibly not to Italy? He laughs.

‘Do you know, he’d be exactly the sort of person to go to Italy, to shake their hand and offer congratulations and respect. That would be Gareth.’

For this interview, we spend more than an hour talking about Southgate’s leadership and mentoring skills and for a lot of it, we are not talking about football, even when we are. Andy, 49, offers an interesting perspective about what it’s like to be on the sidelines, so to speak, watching as his old mucker — the dapper one, who once took him to task for wearing a baseball hat to dinner — came to be hailed a hero, a champion, a future Prime Minister. Yes, he ribs Gareth about that one, but only to a point.

‘Generally I’d say horses-for-courses. Let the politicians do their thing, let us footballers do ours, but you know, Gareth could do that, if he had to. If he had the job, he’d make sure he had the skills to do it. Mind you, I’d make him Chancellor, rather than Prime Minister. He was always good with money.

‘He could never see the point in spending £40 on a pair of socks because there was a designer label on them. He’d take the £3 pair. There’s nothing flashy about him, but there is something classy. It’s different. He always had class.’

Back in 2003, the pair wrote a book together, partly because Gareth thought his story was too ‘boring’ to stand alone (as if), but partly because he wanted his mate to benefit financially. It speaks volumes about the man.

Andy messaged his mate immediately after the Euro 2020 final to express his disappointment — and pride. He also called the abuse the England players had received as ‘disgusting’

Andy has not really spoken about their friendship since, and does so with a little trepidation. ‘You aren’t going to write that I saw Gareth Southgate snort seven lines of coke in a toilet once, are you?’ he says. Er, no, unless you did? More laughter.

‘I can say, hand on heart, that of every footballer I have ever known, Gareth is the last person you would have seen do that. Gareth wouldn’t eat a chocolate bar if it interfered with training. He had more discipline than all the rest of us put together.’

Andy oozes pride, but you also get the sense from him that he saw, long ago, what the world is now seeing: that his mate was top league, in every way.

‘I told him years ago that he’d be a national treasure. He laughed. Well he is now, and I can tell you this, he deserves every accolade he gets — and he’s still exactly the same guy as he was at 14.

‘We may both have a few more wrinkles now but back then, he was the sort of person you wanted in your life, maybe needed in your life. Everyone is seeing that now. He’s the son every parent wants, and the man everyone wants their daughter to bring home.’

Woodman’s career has mirrored his friend’s, but (as he says himself) at different ends of the football world. In their playing days, Gareth was earning more in a week than Andy was in a year.

He references that powerful image of Gareth hugging the young Buyako Saka, whose penalty miss sealed England’s fate, saying the boys are in safe hands now

Somehow their friendship weathered the imbalance. When he got the England job, Andy was the first person Gareth called. He called Gareth quite recently for some work-related advice.

‘I was in a quandary,’ Woodman explains. ‘I was going to leave a player out of the team, for the second time. I told Gareth I was thinking of not telling him in advance. Gareth said I shouldn’t do that. He said I had to be honest, sit him down and talk to him.

‘He said “think of what we were like at that stage, how it felt to be trying to second guess what was going on”. He said the player may not like the conversation, but he’d respect me for it later. That’s Gareth. He does the right thing, not the easy thing.’

Gareth is a man who has always played the long game, too, Woodman suggests — not necessarily as a deliberate tactic, but because it is part of his make-up.

At one stage, we chat about the happy alignment that brought England to the final — the right players coming together with the right manager, at the right time. Woodman says it is never about happenstance.

‘If you look at that team, a lot of these boys played for Gareth in the England Under 21s. He’s been around them since they were 17, 18, 19, 20. They have grown up with his values — knowing what they could expect from him and what he expected from them. They have that humbleness, ethos, respect.’

This is a sea change, Woodman says, from the days where he and Southgate were playing in the 1980s and 90s, where the ambition to play for your country went hand-in-hand with other, less laudable, ambitions. He talks of the ‘decency’ of the current England team.

‘The days of Lamborghinis and the bling-bling are gone,’ says Woodman. ‘I’m sure the guys might have some of those (trappings) but they’re not putting themselves in a position where they ram them down people’s throats.

There is a distinct correlation between Southgate’s experience with penalties and Saka’s 

‘We need to give Gareth a lot of credit here. There was a gap before, between players and public. He has brought these players to within touching distance of the rest of the country. And these kids are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

‘Maybe Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford always would have, but they’ve grown up in an environment which says “you don’t have to be a stereotypical flash footballer”, and that’s down to the example Gareth set.

‘He was the one who came into that Crystal Palace dressing room with me — he has called it a bear-pit; it was a tough environment, very macho, many people thought he was too nice to survive it — yet he was determined he could still be himself, and be true to his values. That’s the measure of the man. That took a steel core, and you could see the determination in him back then.’

They are chalk and cheese: Andy was a ‘typical south London kid’, low on academic achievement and high on bravado. Gareth was the quieter, studious soul with a string of GCSEs and strange sartorial elegance. He was always Mr Meticulous, says Andy, pressed and dressed, even on holiday.

You can see why they were friends. Gareth has said since that he was intrigued by this big-hearted (and often big-mouthed) South Londoner, who made him laugh constantly, and — perhaps crucially — had his back during the dressing room banter. ‘Maybe I toughened him up, made it easier for him to fit in?’ Woodman says. ‘We just worked together, and it’s the same today, we just pick up where we left off, like mates. We’re there for each other.

‘When my mum died, the bottom fell out of my world. I could have gone off the rails, quit football. Gareth was there to keep me on track. I dread to think of where I’d have been heading without him.’

When they met, as fresh-faced 14-year-olds on the same football team, they shared a dream — of reaching the highest levels in football. The Rolex came about because of a pact made in the Palace dressing room that whichever one of them ‘made it’ first in football would buy the other a Rolex.

At the same time, the England manager was facing a trolling of his own for his decisions 

‘We were earning £27.50 a week on a YTS apprentice scheme,’ recalls Woodman. As we now know, Gareth was the one who scaled the ladder. He could not make Andy’s 30th birthday because of work commitments but his wife, Alison, went along to the party, and in a gift bag was a mobile phone (‘top of the range’), and a cheque for £6,000. The card said, simply: ‘Get yourself that watch. Gareth’.

Their wives are good friends now, but it was not always the case. Andy started going out with Anna first, and Gareth was the third ‘leg’ of the relationship. Then Gareth met Alison, his future wife. The two women were not friends to start with. ‘We’ve laughed about it so much since, but they both worked in rival shops in the high street, so they thought they didn’t like each other, but in the end they became really close. We all gelled.

‘I think it’s because I’m quite like Alison, Gareth’s wife, and he’s more like Anna, my wife. The balance worked.’

When their children were young, they holidayed together every year, in Portugal. Conversations between Gareth and Andy shifted from football speak to being about the kids and what they were up to.

‘You go into that stage where it’s all about the kids.’ says Woodman. ‘Your lives are about taking them to football, ballet, horse-riding, whatever. You’re the taxi service.’

Alison was, and perhaps still is, famously lukewarm about football. ‘My wife was, too,’ says Woodman. ‘She could take it or leave it, but the difference with us now is that our son plays and she is his greatest fan. Anna goes all over the country with him.’

Anna may not always have known much about football but, interestingly, Woodman reveals she made an extraordinary prediction 30 years ago.

‘When Gareth and I were young players, I’m not even sure we were professional at the time, she said Gareth was going to be England manager one day. She said ‘mark my words’. He found it hilarious, as did I — we were kids! — but I wish I’d put a bet on that.’

Of course, when things go wrong in the footballing world it can be tricky for everyone. Woodman chats about getting the balance right between supporting his friend, and teasing him with banter — especially after that infamous missed penalty at Euro 96.

Woodman says that Southgate has shown the likes of Raheem Sterling (right) and Marcus Rashford (left) that they don’t have to be flashy

He says: ‘You have that thing of knowing when to have a joke and when you know your friend is a bit broken.’ And yes, Gareth was broken. ‘Of course, it was awful. He was devastated, but rightly or wrongly in football we are lighthearted about these things, and do end up joking about them. I think that’s right. You have to have perspective. Look, no one has died. We haven’t killed anyone.’

There has been much talk recently about how that so-public failure was something Gareth had to go through, to emerge triumphant. Andy would not go that far, ‘but what I can say is that it shows his determination to look forward, to look at turning a situation to a positive. He’s never been about looking back.’

While he is only too happy to sing his mate’s praises, Andy points out the irony.

‘Gareth Southgate never did any of this for Gareth Southgate,’ he says. ‘He was never in it for the personal glory. He was always about putting others first — his team, his country. He’s always been patriotic. I think it goes back to his grandfather being in the Marines, but he always had this thing about how we should take pride in who and what we are — and be true to ourselves. That’s exactly why he deserves every medal or accolade they can throw at him.’

Andy’s phone has been going mad over the past week, which chokes him up. ‘All these people who don’t even know Gareth have been sending me messages like ‘tell him you have made our country great’. It’s kind of amazing. It is. But it’s also kind of simple. His qualities came through that team. Shone through.’

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