To recap, England’s star player, a trailblazer and one of the most popular in the country, has been at the heart of a bust-up with a teammate on international duty. It has seen him punished with a one-game internal suspension and the simmering Premier League title rivalry between Manchester City and Liverpool enter the dynamics of the national team squad.
“It’s done, we move forward,” Raheem Sterling wrote on Instagram in the early hours of Tuesday, in the wake of his confrontation with Liverpool’s Joe Gomez at St George’s Park on Monday. “[Let’s] not make this bigger than it is.”
At which point, the only thing to say was to wish the City winger all the very best with that.
The Football Association had been looking forward to promoting the Euro 2020 qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley on Thursday night as the 1,000th England international, a feelgood story taking in plenty of nostalgia but also optimism for the future, specifically concerning the championship finals next summer. Now the organisation has switched into crisis management mode with the issue of squad discipline and harmony front and centre.
All of the cameras were on Sterling and Gomez in Tuesday morning’s training session and there were eyes on stalks when Gomez was seen to be sporting a cut on the side of his face. To the Sterling camp it was nothing more than a scratch, evidence that this really was a storm in a St George’s Park restaurant teacup. But to others it was confirmation of just how physical things had got between the players.
Enter Gareth Southgate at the media session in the afternoon. The manager does not normally speak two days before a game but he knew he had to front up here, to try to get a handle on the developing situation and, ideally, nip it in the bud. Quite simply, that did not happen. It was never going to happen.
Southgate was in a tight spot, wanting to remain true to the openness and honesty that have been the hallmarks of his tenure but, at the same time, not being prepared – or able – to go into much detail. Southgate said it was one of those things that can happen in football; everybody had had their say at the subsequent team meeting and other discussions – particularly the senior players – and he had then made the final decision to stand Sterling down from selection against Montenegro.
To Southgate it was irrelevant that Sterling was his main man, the player who has played better than anybody else for him since the Russia World Cup. Everybody had to be treated the same, senior or junior. It was interesting that Southgate said Sterling’s emotions had run high during the bust-up whereas it was “correct to say it was not the same for Joe”. In other words, the blame belonged to Sterling.
Yet it was what Southgate could not answer that ensured the plot deepened. What precisely had Sterling done to deserve being frozen out and why was it so much worse than other player indiscretions? How was the scale of the punishment decided? And, above all, how had Sterling taken it? The situation is hugely delicate and it has the potential to run and run; to become one of those unwanted reference points for an England manager.
Southgate described his squad as being like a family and, of course, every family has its disagreements. Take Casino-gate with James Maddison last month, when the Leicester midfielder, having withdrawn from the squad that faced Czech Republic and Bulgaria, was pictured at a gaming table while the first game was played. Southgate made the point last week that Maddison needed to be “high performance, low maintenance”.
The Sterling episode comes hard on the heels of that and it has left Southgate facing the greatest test of his happy family atmosphere. It is imperative that he does not alienate Sterling but, make no mistake, the player has been left upset at how he has been disciplined. Sterling is understood to feel that this kind of incident is not unusual in professional football and Southgate has overreacted. Why was his apology at the team meeting not enough?
Sterling’s status in the squad does enter the equation, whether Southgate likes it or not, because he is a role model to some of the younger players, even if he is only 24 himself. Sterling has 55 caps, is established at the top level and has gone above and beyond to help many players to integrate into the England setup.
On the other hand, there is the argument that Sterling should have known better and behaved better. It was an ordeal for him at Anfield on Sunday, when he was jeered remorselessly by the supporters of his former club. He felt that Gomez had aimed an elbow at him which led to the pair squaring up towards the end of City’s defeat but, by the following day, the heat of the moment had surely passed. That Sterling saw red when he saw Gomez was not easily justified, according to Southgate, who felt that the bottom line took in the care and safety of his players. He has acted strongly. The repercussions may be still to come.