Gareth Southgate strode out of the Wembley tunnel in a suave waistcoat, shirt and tie combo, looking more like a prohibition mafia bookkeeper than the manager of England’s football team.
It was a fitting image after a week of weighing up decisions, balancing the accounts, trying to add two and two and continually coming up with five ahead of the penultimate friendly, against Nigeria, before the squad fly to Russia for the World Cup.
It was a week during which Southgate would’ve realised that his job is almost as much about his calculations off the field as it is about picking the starting XI and substitutes, putting the players through their training drills and deciding upon the tactics for the upcoming game. At times it must feel as though cooking the books for some mob bosses might be a less dangerous prospect than selecting England’s players to kick a ball around a field for 90 minutes, plus stoppages.
Southgate wanted to drop Raheem Sterling after he turned up late to join the rest of the squad. Having already been granted a later meeting date to sort out some personal issues, Sterling then missed a connecting flight at Miami Airport en route back from a holiday in Jamaica.
But England’s manager also wanted to extend an olive branch of support to the Manchester City forward for the week he had been through: pulled apart publicly, on social media, news channels, debated on newspaper pages and websites, for the tattoo of an assault rifle on his right calf, which had been there for months.
If Southgate had thought that public opinion was behind the 23-year-old, he would’ve been surprised to see the player rated as the worst of his starting side — and fourth worst of the 16 who featured — by a hefty proportion of the public voting for the players’ ratings on the BBC’s website. Sterling, while missing some decent chances, set up Harry Kane’s winner and was one of England’s most lively attacking outlets. He was nowhere near one of the worst. And a lot of the Sunday papers wrote largely positive pieces about the player. You really can’t please everyone.
The inclusion of Jordan Pickford indicated that the Everton goalkeeper is edging ahead of Jack Butland to become England’s tournament No1. It is a huge call for either player at the sort of age — Pickford is 24-years-old and Butland 25 — where a strong performance in Russia could establish them as the national team’s long-term goalkeeper. With Joe Hart, 31, left out of the squad, that position is available.
Chelsea defender Gary Cahill was unsure if he would even make the squad following an up-and-down season with his club, was handed a chance against Nigeria in the back three ahead of Harry Maguire, a player Southgate will consider a starter, headed in a seventh-minute opener and, with his experience as the squad’s most-capped player, will now be legitimately wondering if he could force his way into becoming more than just an older head sharing a few wise words in Repino.
Tournament football is as much about how the players’ off-field issues are managed as their appearances on it. Steve Cooper, who oversaw the England-Under 17s’s World Cup victory last October, said recently that it was just as important to recognise if someone — including staff members — were having an off day: missing a partner, feeling homesick, discovering the pet dog has died back home, not enjoying the sour cabbage everyone is eating in Russia.
But Southgate is showing every day how well he is able to cope with this kind of responsibility. He was unafraid to cut down foreign secretary Boris Johnson for his inflammatory comments about Russia as geopolitical tensions rose only a few months out from the World Cup. He is as adept at making a joke in a press conference as he is at tackling sensitive issues. You leave a press conference wanting England to win the World Cup simply because Southgate comes across as a decent bloke, happy to admit he went on the p**s in Magaluf as a player and is not as straight as a die. Peel away the Football Association shell and he is, God forbid, pretty “normal”. Not a gangster’s accountant, or England’s manager, just a man who would love to see his country do well in a major tournament again.