Gareth Southgate opens up on ‘lonely’ England job in shadow of Sterling row | Football

When Gareth Southgate pulled up a chair for his briefing with the press at the Grove hotel in Hertfordshire, it was roughly 48 hours after you-know-what but, to no great surprise, the issue continued to dominate.

A little earlier in a different room, the England manager had been peppered with questions from the broadcast media about the whys and wherefores of his decision to drop Raheem Sterling for the Euro 2020 qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley on Thursday night. It was about to be a similar story with the newspapers.

We all know what happened in terms of how Sterling attacked Joe Gomez in the restaurant at St George’s Park on Monday but here was phase two – the follow-up inquisition, the clean-up. Southgate mentioned how Sterling “had the hump” with him and he was asked by one journalist to elaborate.

“I don’t know that for sure,” Southgate replied. “You don’t have to be an expert in human behaviour to think it was possible.”

The headline items from Southgate on Sterling were that the Manchester City winger had reacted extremely positively to the in-house disciplinary action, was training well and would certainly be back in the starting line-up for the match against Kosovo in Pristina on Sunday. It is unusual for Southgate to offer up a team news line such as this so far in advance and it reflected his desperation to draw a line under the incident.

Would Sterling be a part of the celebrations around the Montenegro game to mark the occasion of England’s 1,000th international, when a host of former players will add star quality and nostalgia? “I don’t know for sure,” Southgate replied. “I’m trying to deal with the game. If I can get up in the royal box and present everything else, I’ll try to do that as well. I’ve done the under-21 caps this week, spoke to the under-17s so if I can fulfil any more obligations …”

Southgate’s exasperation was understandable and the broader take-away from this latest set piece when the spotlight burned on him brought to mind the old line about his job being the impossible one. For the England manager, there is always something, whether it be selection decisions, social issues or off-the-field indiscretions and he must be psychologist and national ambassador as well as try to find a way to get results on the pitch. “I don’t know what a normal week with England would be, frankly,” Southgate said.

Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling had been training well and would be in the starting line-up for Sunday’s match against Kosovo, Gareth Southgate revealed. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

At St George’s Park on Tuesday, when Southgate had been parachuted in to front up to the decision over Sterling, he had gone for the straight bat and it was difficult to say that it had worked. Keen not to say the wrong thing, he came across as unusually uncomfortable. Here, he allowed his emotions to show, laying bare the torment he can feel when his decisions are picked apart by pundits and journalists.

He said that only his decisions were “tested by the outcomes of games” and it was his “cross to bear”. This is what it feels like to be the England manager.

“Nobody else walks in my shoes and has to deal with all of these things,” Southgate said. “So whenever I pick a squad, the country’s divided. Whenever I pick a team, the country’s divided. And then, if we play well, everybody comes together a little bit. And then everybody talks in the pub about who should’ve played and who should’ve come into the game and ‘why did I make that change?’ And they’re divided again.”

What Southgate wanted to say is that an England manager has to have the courage of his convictions and, ideally, the hide of a rhino. He has made a decision over Sterling in good faith and based on all the available evidence, which only he has. He is not arrogant enough to think that it has been perfect and, as with every difficult decision – such as the one to effectively end Wayne Rooney’s England career – it has been taken with a heavy heart. But, quite simply, it is impossible to please everyone. “If you’re a leader and you try to keep everybody happy all the time, then that’s not going to happen,” Southgate said. “You’re probably going to duck issues that you should deal with so it’s a lonely place to be. But you have to stand up and show you’re accountable.”

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What Southgate stressed on numerous occasions was that his players were fully focused on the job in hand, which was to beat Montenegro to ensure qualification. A draw would actually do as well, although no one was thinking about dropping points against opponents who have taken only three so far in the group. Southgate said his team would be very young; younger, possibly, than the line-up he selected for the 3-2 win over Spain in Seville, which was “one of the youngest teams we’ve fielded for decades”.

In midfield he is expected to field Declan Rice and Mason Mount, both 20, together with Harry Winks, 23, while it will be interesting to see whether he goes with the 19‑year‑old Jadon Sancho on the wing. Sancho is experiencing a difficult time at Borussia Dortmund, having been fined for a late return after the previous international break and criticised by the manager, Lucien Favre, after a poor performance in the team’s 4-0 defeat at Bayern Munich on Saturday. Favre substituted him after 36 minutes and later said he was not injured.

Southgate made the point that “any young player is going to have ups and downs”, particularly a creative one, but the message to his squad was that opportunity was now there to be embraced.

“Whenever you play for England, you have the opportunity to create these special memories that live with everybody in the country and those big nights when everybody can remember where they were and what they were doing and the colours are so vivid,” Southgate said. “We always have to remember what a privilege it is to pull the shirt on.”

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