I THINK there was a time when I hated Gareth Southgate more than anyone else on the planet.

It was June 1996 and I was studying for some geography and biology exams at the end of the bar in a pub where I collected glasses. As far as I was concerned, ashtrays could empty themselves just so long as I could give three examples of coastal erosion and name all the sections of the spine.

Southgate’s penalty miss against Germany had ruined the perfect summer. I had worked every game of the European Championships but had the final booked off, planning to enjoy a whitewash victory against the Czech Republic in a way only young teenage boys see fit. Hint: It involved booze, and almost certainly the fruitless chase of female companionship.

But no. As I circled passages in Weiner’s model of attribution theory I was attaching my own blame to a certain Aston Villa defender/midfielder, who I vowed never again to buy in Championship Manager, by way of a vendetta.

When Southgate succeeded Sam Allardyce in 2016 those feelings of resentment started to bubble to the surface once again. I remembered the Pizza Hut advert where he, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle brazenly joked about their shortcomings while trying to flog us a deep pan mighty meaty, I remembered a bang-average spell in charge of Middlesbrough, I looked at the blazer and I made assumptions about why he was in the post.

Even during the World Cup of 2018, when fans chanted Southgate’s name to the tune of Atomic Kitten (Whole Again, not one of those God-awful covers), I just couldn’t get 100 per cent on board.

The over-cautious display against Croatia in the semi-final gave me that stray branch on which to cling in the tidal wave of public adoration for the England boss. I was determined not to allow my childish grudge be dislodged for a measly fourth place in Russia.

In the intervening years I have become more interested in the England team and the way it has evolved. It now plays a brand of football I enjoy to watch and though Southgate is not solely responsible – after all, the entire FA went head-over-heels for the whole player pathway thing after the Roy Hodgson debacle in 2016 – I could at least give him some begrudging respect for the way he changed the face of the national team.

Then yesterday, flicking around the football headlines in search of some inspiration, I read his open letter to England supporters, published widely – but in this instance by the Players’ Tribune. And I can say nothing other than ‘well done’.

It is a brave move to put out his thoughts on some incendiary subjects like racism, social media abuse and nationalism on the eve of a major tournament, but a very necessary one.

He is completely right to say that his dressing room is not just full of top-class footballers, it is also a home to role models. And while some of those young men may have let themselves down at times on that front, others have consistency excelled. Either way, they all deserve to be treated with respect.

"I have never believed that we should just stick to football," Southgate wrote.

"I know my voice carries weight. Publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.

"It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.

"This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves."

Southgate explained his own love affair with England at the major tournaments – the wall charts, rushing home from school to watch the late afternoon games. He didn’t mention Panini stickers, but I will let him off this once.

Most of all, I think he gets what it is like to be on both sides of the fence – as a fan and in the dressing room. So to see him stick up for his players in such a composed and eloquent manner says a lot about him as a person.

The younger me will not like it… But I may finally have forgiven him for Euro 96.

David Batty, Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce, you’d better get writing.