Michael Caulfield has enjoyed a close bond with Gareth Southgate since 2006Southgate hired the sport psychologist when he became Middlesbrough bossThey have remained in frequent contact in the 16 years which have followedCaulfield regards Southgate as a fearless leader despite his 'nice guy' imageHe is adamant that the England boss' top priorities are 'integrity' and his teamSouthgate will not pay much attention to criticism from outside, says CaulfieldHowever, Caulfield believes he may leave his position after this year's World Cup Click here for the latest World Cup 2022 news, fixtures, live action and results
It has been over 16 years since a chance outing to Middlesbrough Football Club which started one of the most significant and cherished relationships of Michael Caulfield’s career. So much so that he now considers it a friendship.
After calling time on his stint as chief executive of the Professional Jockey’s Association in 2003, Caulfield retrained in psychology before embarking on a trip to Rockliffe Park three years’ later.
The opportunity arose thanks to Chris Barnes, Boro’s Head of Sport Science at the time, who was first asked by Caulfield if he had any interest in helping Grand National-winning jockey Graham Lee build up his fitness at the club’s training ground, an offer he kindly accepted.
Michael Caulfield has enjoyed a close bond with Gareth Southgate (pictured) since 2006
The pair first crossed paths during Southgate’s final season as a player at Middlesbrough
Caulfield, one of the country’s most experienced sport psychologists, was hired by Southgate at the Riverside Stadium
Soon after, the newly-trained psychologist was invited along to watch Middlesbrough train in the lead-up to their historic UEFA Cup final appearance that season.
‘I’d like to think I kept out the way,’ Caulfield remembers. ‘I just sat quietly in Chris’ space.
‘It was the end of the season, the squad were fit and healthy and all trying to get ready for the final in Rotterdam.
‘Bar one player, who was recovering from a slight hamstring injury…’
The player was Gareth Southgate.
While receiving treatment for his injury, Southgate enjoyed a 30-minute discussion with Caulfield in Boro’s medical room before the pair exchanged phone numbers, promising to stay in touch.
Yet in the end they not only kept in contact. When he hung up his playing boots, bowing out after a 4-0 defeat in that European showpiece against Sevilla, and jumped straight into his first managerial post with Middlesbrough, Southgate asked Caulfield to join his backroom team.
The ex-England international was embarking on his first managerial job with Middlesbrough
The sport psychologist role at Boro was his first in football, too. As well as supporting and advising Southgate’s players, Caulfield was also tasked with boosting the morale and confidence of his own direct colleagues.
‘I’m not employed by a club,’ he explains. ‘I consult, because if you’re there every day I think that can bring its own tensions. So your role is two or three fold; of course you want to support the players through both difficult and good times, but you’ve also got to earn the trust and support of the staff, because football staff is expanding by the week almost. They need help too because they feel the pressure hugely.’
He continues: ‘I formed a good relationship [with Southgate] and since I left the club in 2009 I’ve gone on to do other things. So has he, but we’ve always, always kept in touch, whether it’s for my work in other sports, because he’s fascinated by other sports, or his work in football.
‘How he’s served English football, not just as a coach, I think he’s left a huge footprint. And I always knew from the moment I met him that he was a very, very good person who I wanted to get to know and stay in touch with.’
Fast forward 16 years and Caulfield’s good friend now enjoys a role as England manager
The admiration is certainly mutual, which is why they have maintained a close bond after all these years. A testimonial from Southgate about Caulfield, one of the country’s most experienced sport psychologists, reads: ‘[Michael] simplifies sport, understands the changing room and connects with players and coaches from all backgrounds. If you only want science, data and measures, look elsewhere. If you want someone who can make sense of all the clutter that exists in the minds of all athletes and coaches and help them focus on performance, then give Mike a ring.’
Fast forward 16 years from his maiden foray into management and Southgate now covets the country’s top job, having led England’s national side since 2016.
Over the past six years he has conducted himself flawlessly, both in front of the world’s media and on the touchline, while masterminding England’s historic run to a first major final in 55 years at Euro 2020. More still, he was a penalty shootout away from winning it.
Though heading into the Qatar World Cup, Southgate’s position is under greater scrutiny than ever before. A string of concerning results over the summer increased pressure on the 52-year-old and even ignited calls for him to be replaced. Some consider him too cautious, too soft a manager to lead an England squad brimming with raw talent beyond this year’s tournament.
Caulfield does not see it that way. ‘This is a man who absolutely thrives on challenge. And to a degree, proving people wrong, because he’s been doing that since he was an apprentice at Crystal Palace. That’s who he is.
His Three Lions side are in the middle of their campaign at this year’s World Cup in Qatar
Despite his nice guy image, Caulfield insists Southgate is a ‘fierce and ruthless competitor’
He guided England to semi-final and final appearances at the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020
‘For all the things we know about him, his decency and his kindness and his likability, this is an absolutely fearless and ruthless competitor. He’s such a decent leader for us as people to look up to, but underneath that very kind layer is a fierce competitor.
‘He wouldn’t have ever got going in football if he hadn’t been, because it wasn’t given to him. He didn’t come from a footballing background at all and you forget he played 600 games at the highest level, captained his country, played for his country over 50 times and now is the head coach for his country.
‘So don’t buy into this “too nice” title, just because he doesn’t stand on the touchline screaming and shouting. I’ve yet to meet one player in my 15 years in football who has said that a screaming, animated, crazy manager on the touchline has made any difference to performance anyway.’
The army of naysayers clamouring for Southgate’s managerial head would benefit from a timely reminder of how England fared at the two major tournaments prior to his arrival.
There was no way past the group stage at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, before an astonishingly disjointed performance against Iceland at Euro 2016 led to one of the most humiliating defeats in English football history.
For all his critics, Southgate has united a previously fragmented England dressing room and reaped the rewards for doing so. Regardless of whether he’s yet to capture silverware or not, semi-final and final appearances in his first two competitions undoubtedly represented progress – and he hasn’t made too bad of a start in Qatar, either.
It came after the country suffered a humiliating last-16 exit against Iceland at Euro 2016
After reaching the World Cup semis, Southgate’s men enjoyed a historic run to the Euros final
But heading into this tournament the England boss has faced more fan criticism than ever
‘I think England are united because they’re comfortable,’ Caulfield adds. ‘And good grief, I don’t think any of us appreciate the level of scrutiny that they are under when they play for England or might get picked for the squad. It’s extraordinary.
‘He’s made them feel wanted and comfortable. They’re not frightened of being in an England shirt anymore. Look at the terror of the Iceland 2016 defeat. They could barely run by the end of it. You knew they weren’t going to score and you knew they were going to be eliminated because they just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.
‘That has completely been transformed and turned around due to his leadership style, which is not fluffy and not soft I can tell you. This is a fierce, ruthless competitor.’
But what about this negativity from the outside? Does Southgate pay much attention to it? ‘I think he’s an incredibly self aware person, his levels of self-awareness are huge,’ Caulfield says. ‘He might not tell anyone what he reads and listens to – even including his wife and family – but he’s not silly. He knows the debates are going on.
‘I was told a very, very good line by a manager at Brentford. He said “Michael, you’ve got to try and not think like a fan. You’ve got to know what the fans think, but you can’t think like a fan. Otherwise you just pick the fans’ team or the emotional team or the fantasy team, and it doesn’t work like that in any walk of life”.
‘[Southgate] is a brilliant listener. He listens to the right arguments and the right people, he’s incredibly self aware, but he’s also got this extraordinary steel to separate himself away from that and to make what he thinks [is the right decision].’
It’s at this point when Caulfield stops and pulls out a sheet of paper. He holds it in front of the camera to show two words written in capitals.
‘Deep down all he really genuinely thinks about is the team and not himself,’ he continues. ‘The easy option is always to go with the mood and the emotion, to say “if I do this and that it will make me popular” – but that’s not how he operates. He operates for one thing and one thing only: the good of the team.’
While there is perhaps an argument that he deserves to stay in charge regardless of Qatar, should England crash out earlier than the semi-finals, Southgate risks being struck by a vicious wave of public criticism – and his position will undoubtedly be in jeopardy.
Protests for a new Three Lions boss are only certain to intensify in that case, protests which could tempt him to call it a day and place the team’s future in fresh hands.
Whatever happens in Qatar, Caulfield feels Southgate will leave a lasting legacy in England
Towards the end of our interview, Caulfield takes another slight pause before pondering the scenarios in which his good friend could walk away.
‘If this World Cup doesn’t go well and there’s incredible personal attacks on him, what I would say is this,’ he starts. ‘I think two things would probably make him leave the job: one, that he knows it’s no longer right for him to lead the team. Or two, he’s asked to [leave]. But he’ll do it for the right reasons. He’ll do it for the team.
‘He will do what’s right for the team, because this team is still quite young. The Sakas, the Fodens, they could be around for two more tournaments, so the future is pretty strong.’
One thing Caulfield is certain about, however, is the legacy Southgate will leave in English football. ‘If England win it this time around,’ he continues, ‘or an England team win a major event in the next four, eight, 12, 16 years, whether it’s Gareth in charge or it’s someone else… I think you’ll be able to trace back a lot of what happens then to what’s happened in the last seven years.’