It was the day before England played Ukraine when I posted the tweet that would reduce my mentions to a kaleidoscope of filth: a touching homage to the “ultimate middle-aged crush”, England manager, Gareth Southgate.
Twenty-four hours later, my Twitter feed was a deluge of explicit fantasies about the imaginary domestic habits of the man himself. Some were amusingly concise (“I can see him using his day off to re-point the patio, even though you said to get someone in to do it” @LilyJoWriter). Others were practically their own erotic novel (“He tapes the Allen keys to the back of the furniture with a bag containing any spare screws so they’re always on hand if he needs them. He goes round every six months to tighten the screws up” @LittleLorrie1).
But each one was a wonderful tableau of erotic whimsy and tender longing with the odd bit of filth thrown in (in the words of one unforgettable comment: “I bet he’s very thorough”).
Over 20,000 “likes” and hundreds of replies later, I was left in no doubt that the people of England have the horn in such a big way for Gareth Southgate it would probably embarrass the man himself.
Perhaps it’s because we have all spent too long locked down, our only sexual outlet a spouse we can’t escape from or, on our rare trips out of the house, the sight of a passing dogwalker’s exposed rear when they bend over to pick up after their labradoodle. Or perhaps it’s because our collective crush on Gareth Southgate has given us something to cling on to during a pretty bleak year.
In a country crying out for quiet, principled leadership, the sight of Southgate at the side of the pitch, humble, dignified, a thoughtful frown on his face as he watches the game like an anxious dustbowl farmer surveying his crop, is like a warm mug of tea for the soul.
After the thread was featured on The Andrew Marr Show, Absolute Radio, BBC 5 Live, as well as in The Sun and The Telegraph, my friend said, “You know he’s probably seen it by now.” Well, I hear he’s pretty busy. But in the unlikely event he has, I hope he takes it as a compliment that he has been a lightning rod for the nation’s longing for something to believe in.
Football has always been a theatre of beguiling masculine archetypes, from the swagger of Jose Mourinho to the glorious preening of Cristiano Ronaldo, and Southgate is a welcome addition to their number.
In our minds, he’s the man who jumps out to change the tyre before you can call the AA; the man who turns his alarm off straight after the first beep so as not to wake you up; the man with the in-tact, no-claims bonus we want to drive us to our collective colonoscopy appointment then sit quietly in the car eating that poignant scotch egg.
There is the real Gareth Southgate, with flaws like any human, then the “Gareth Southgate” that exists in our imaginations. Pure. Untouchable. Always willing to bleed a radiator or take out a binbag.
Whatever happens tonight, in Southgate we trust.
Madeleine Brettingham is a comedy writer. She tweets at @littlemaddles