A press release landed in journalists’ inboxes at 11.10pm on Monday night. The subject line was just a single word: “Statement”.
In football, that bland word always piques interest: ‘statement’ almost always means something has happened that's worth downplaying. A sacking, maybe, or a club in financial difficulties. As a general rule, too, something so late at night is even better.
This time, it was how we found out that Raheem Sterling had been dropped for England’s Euro 2020 qualifier with Montenegro on Thursday. The statement itself, from Gareth Southgate, didn’t mention Liverpool’s Joe Gomez – though Sterling’s Instagram post did.
Instead, Southgate said that “one of the great challenges and strengths for us is that we’ve been able to separate club rivalries from the national team. Unfortunately the emotions of yesterday’s game [between Liverpool and Manchester City] were still raw.”
Exactly what happened is still coming out and, in a way, is less important than the aftermath: Southgate’s decision, and how the players respond.
Plenty have argued that the decision to drop Sterling has blown this incident out of proportion; that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of ‘passion’ within the squad, and that it should have been handled internally, not publicly. Why ostracise your best player?
This ignores an important piece of context: that one of the most talented England squads in generations underachieved because club rivalries affected squad harmony.
In 2017, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard all accepted that their loyalties to Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea respectively damaged the England team’s morale throughout the 2000s. And that manifested itself by players sitting at different tables, not a “disturbance in a private team area”.
The way that the Manchester City-Liverpool rivalry is developing on the pitch, with players competing against each other for every major trophy going the vast majority of the time, it was surely only a matter of time before it affected England somehow.
A remarkable 10 minutes of TV from 3 of England’s ‘Golden Generation’ and the issues they faced in their time as Lions...fascinating TV... pic.twitter.com/ZYy6VB66A2— Jake Humphrey (@mrjakehumphrey) November 25, 2017
If anything, this incident presented Southgate with a perfect opportunity to make a stand against it. He now gets to lay down the law with a major player in a game he can claim ‘means something’ and send a message to the others about how he expects them to behave. They know where the line is.
In reality, England should be able to qualify without Sterling. In terms of what this match means, he loses nothing on the pitch. The off-pitch positives should also be pretty clear.
But what does it mean for the England manager’s relationship with one of the best players in the world?
Southgate’s man-management skills are probably his strongest attribute. As such, there are two intriguing elements to his response.
The first is that he probably calculates that Sterling is mature enough to know not to blow this out of proportion. The 24-year-old has been an England regular for years, is popular with team-mates, and seems to be respected as a leader within the squad. If he’d reacted badly to being dropped, the repercussions could have been pretty ugly for dressing room harmony.
He didn’t, though. He appears to accept that he acted badly and hasn’t questioned the punishment – while also downplaying the incident itself. Perfect.
The second is that this all probably means the manager thinks the worst of the media abuse towards Sterling is over. He can’t be unaware of the fact Sterling himself attributes his past poor form for the national team on his struggles wtith the press.
It would be almost unthinkable that Southgate wouldn’t take that into account when making a call like this. Where once he would have had to weigh up this decision against the criticism Sterling would have faced as a result, now it’s more likely someone else could face a backlash here: Southgate himself.
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