In his treatment of ‘Canteengate’ Gareth Southgate revealed another layer to a management style best described as touchy-feely. He also left a gap in the news cycle that represents a rare miss-step and could yet unravel further.
That Raheem Sterling is feeling the full weight of the iron fist in Southgate’s velvet glove is clear. What is less certain is Southgate’s command of the volcanic variable that landed in his lap, how it might play out and thus impact on his preparations for the European Championship qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley.
Southgate presented an angry countenance at a media conference called to address Sterling’s contretemps with Joe Gomez when the England squad gathered at St George’s Park on Monday night. Whatever led Sterling to move aggressively against Gomez 24 hours after the pair had tangled at Anfield in the match between Liverpool and Manchester City, Southgate would not say, and in declining to do so invited speculation and conjecture to fill in the spaces.
The detail that spilled from within the camp late on Monday night, which led to a statement from the FA confirming the altercation and Sterling’s subsequent punishment, demonstrates how difficult it is to keep inhouse any disputes that might arise within the England family.
Southgate will learn over the coming 48 hours how successful his policy is not to reveal the truth of the saga. We don’t know what provoked Sterling to behave as he did, or how Gomez responded in situ. There are suggestions that not all the players were in agreement with the decision to axe Sterling from the Montenegro fixture. Those questions are a can kicked down the road. A better way to deal with the issue would have been to roll out Sterling and Gomez to answer for themselves. Not only would that have met the standards of maturity and trust Southgate has worked so hard to engender, it would have drained a tricky episode of its potency. There is nothing like mystery and intrigue for promoting interest, especially in a high profile soap like an England squad gathering.
Southgate alluded to the problem of managing a group on this scale. “There seems to be all sorts of info being passed from so many different areas. This is a consequence of the England football team now and that is a very difficult situation, one we have to think about moving forward. The team getting out, information getting out, there seem to be so many voices in the background. It’s something I have to accept and something I have to deal with.”
Southgate, pictured, must be hoping his attempt to shut this down will be followed by the players. But what about those connected to the players, family, friends and associates who have no personal connection of responsibility to Southgate and still less grasp of the dangers? And worse those who simply want to make mischief? England had an opportunity to strip the issue of its power to beguile and passed it up.
As mistakes go, this is not in the class of some that have gone before. Southgate has not left his shoes at the door of a celebrity conquest, he has not agreed to rate his players out of ten in a deal with a betting firm and has not offered intelligence on how to get round regulations governing the transfer of players. It should also be noted that this has not blown up 48 hours before a major final. England are playing Montenegro at Wembley not Germany. The consequences of any disruption are low.
It would be a pity, however, if this puts at risk the hugely improved atmosphere around the England team and how the manager and the players conduct their business through the media prism.
Southgate has dealt impressively with curved balls thus far. He reacted calmy when learning of James Maddison’s casino habits after being released from the last squad, reasoning that the player was on his own time and therefore free to do as he pleases. Rather than rail when his World Cup line-up was disclosed via the long lens of the press cameras in Russia, he accepted the media had a job to do. And his stewardship of the England team through the racism blight that resurfaced in Bulgaria was exemplary.
On this occasion he jumped early and is sticking to his course when it might have been better to take a breath. As it is England are without their best player and the details behind the reasons why remain unclear. This is England, the Love Island end of the football spectrum. Secrets don’t stay secret for long. Watch this space.