IT HAS ALWAYS been difficult to predict which high-achieving footballers have what it takes to be high-achieving managers. Who would have thought, of the England team that won the World Cup, that Jack Charlton would succeed where Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore failed? And, of more recent England footballers, who would not stick their mortgage on Tony Adams or Alan Shearer prospering in management, at least before musing that great things were also once expected of John Barnes and Bryan Robson?
Which brings me to Gareth Southgate. Capped 51 times for England, the 32-year-old Middlesbrough captain - who on Monday leads his team out at St James' Park against Newcastle United, the one fixture all Boro fans want to win most - is a famously eloquent member of a mostly inarticulate brotherhood. He even has eight O Levels, not that he thanked Steve Coppell, the manager at his first club, Crystal Palace, for broadcasting the fact.
"He made a bit of a thing of it, and I immediately got slaughtered. Mark Bright and Ian Wright said: `Eight O Levels, eh? Let's see how he goes in the effing five-a-side!'"
Southgate beams at the memory. Not only intelligent, articulate and tactful (he claims to have been unaware of any of the reported argy-bargy on Saturday between his team-mate George Boateng and the Leeds United player Nicky Barmby) but engaging company, and of course an elegant and tactically astute central defender... he's another of those you would back to become a top manager.
Moreover, he wants it. Indeed, it's one of the reasons he joined Middlesbrough. "Here was an opportunity to work with someone [Steve McClaren] going into his first managerial job and doing some ground- breaking things, like bringing in a sports psychologist [Bill Beswick] as his assistant manager. It was a great case study for me to come and analyse."
I ask Southgate whether he has benefited from a spot of psychology himself? "Not really. I expected Bill to work with the team, but he tends to work more with the staff, mostly with the manager. So instead of the players sitting in a room and feeling under pressure to say things, life goes on like at a normal football club, except that there is a great deal of analysis of every decision made; what's said at half-time, at full-time, both before and after the event, and unlike that period at Villa I've been involved in everything."
The reference is to his six years at Aston Villa, where he was also club captain, yet at the end not even on speaking terms with the manager, John Gregory. We'll come back to all that unpleasantness, but first I want to know more about McClaren as a managerial case study.
"When I came here [in July 2001] I thought we were going to be able to sign people, but then it became apparent that the club was going to have to cut the wage bill. He opened my eyes to things I'd never thought of before. When I had the actual economics explained to me in a bit more detail, I realised that in the period football's going into, careful financial management is going to be a big factor."
So: not only tactically astute, bright and highly personable but also economically aware, he's already beginning to sound like every chairman's dream manager. Except that he's got other fish to fry first, like getting back into Sven Goran Eriksson's first XI.
"I feel I can play for four or five years more at the top level," he says. "If I felt I couldn't play at the top level I would retire now. I feel I'm as good as anybody in the country in my position, and that I can stay at that level until the European Championships in 2004, and I hope until 2006. The only difference between me and some of the other players is that they're playing in the Champions' League, which raises their profile."
This is bold talk, but surely he can see why, say, Rio Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate might be preferred by Eriksson, if he is to build for the future? …