On the morning of England’s 1,000th international breakfast telly was predicting a smashing, positively dashing spectacle, just like in the song about Ascot in My Fair Lady. I thought: aren’t they even going to mention the bust-up between Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez? They did, right at the end of the report, and maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised it was downplayed because our dear friends in England love a coronation, or as close as football can get to one. Which is pretty close. Remember the big party thrown for David Beckham? I forget what it was supposed to be celebrating. Becks going five consecutive games with the same hairstyle, perhaps. Or eight games played from a standing position. Or the highest number of times he was first to jump on a goalscorer, literally piggybacking on the man’s fame to ensure his own prominence in the back-page photos. Or the highest number of times a goal was shown and bloody shown again – his last-minute free-kick against Greece.
It was with a certain amount of ghoulish fascination, then, that I tuned into Thursday’s match against Montenegro. Surely live coverage was going to have to go big on the Sterling/Gomez bout, the Manchester City player having attacked the Liverpool man in the canteen of England HQ following a juddering encounter between their clubs. ITV probably had a glittery, thousand-themed title sequence compiled by archive dept kids who think it’s okay to introduce the tapir-like countenance of Harry Kane before Bobby Charlton’s glorious combover and were desperate to run it. They had and they did, and for a moment I almost felt sorry for the network, who don’t own the rights to much football these days, for here was an unsexy qualifier they could dress up like It’s a Royal Knockout, stopping just short of having Gazza, Shilts and other whiteshirted legends in vegetable costumes thumping each other with pretend rubber hams. But sympathy ran out when I realised Clive Tyldesley would be commentating. On enforced rations, Tyldesley approaches each England international like an especially repressed librarian tremulously gripping the phallus-shaped handle on the quilted door of the orgy suite. It’s almost going to be too exciting for words. Except that Tyldesley always has words. Lots of them.
Before the glorious non-event of a match, though, pundits who should have been reflecting on great England players and best England goals were obliged to discuss the overblown England playground-grade spat. Thankfully Roy Keane, pictured, guaranteed diamond entertainment on such occasions, was on the panel. “Edge! Energy! Dynamic! Needle! Emotion! Anger! Fighting!” This was what Keano, said, his exact words. Football dressing rooms were full of such things. Or they used to be. And they still should be. He’s right, more or less. How can you stop tension bubbling over among energetic, pumped-up young millionaire footballers? Maybe reintroducing contact during games would help – sort everything out with a 1970s-style haymaker (see Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter vs Frannie “Interesting… very interesting!” Lee). I’m joking, more or less.
Personally, I blame the parents, or rather the club manager. It would have been surprising if Pep Guardiola’s spontaneous combustion during Man City’s defeat at Anfield had not transmitted to at least one of his men, to the extent of him being moved to inquire: “Think you’re the big man?” That the aggressor in the England refectory was Sterling may itself be surprising given that on previous visits to his former club, when he’s been booed and accused of being greedy, the player seemed to cope okay. I guess every player has his breaking point. Since the incident with Gomez, who seems very much the meek and mild sort, came to light there has been much debate about whether it should have remained in-house, whether Sterling should have been dropped and exactly how often players get physical with each other in a non-game situation. Meeting such a fiery manager as Jim Jefferies the other day, it seemed the obvious thing to do to pump him for a tale or two. The Hearts redoubtable drew a distinct comparison between his first spell at Tynecastle (1995-2000) when a mostly Scottish side played at a frantic tempo but the spillover never got out of hand and his second stint in charge (2010-11). “I went from no one falling out, or not significantly, to having many more foreigners who didn’t like a tackle, especially in training,” Jefferies told me. “Everyone else knew about their volatility so there would be a few wind-ups. I remember a confrontation between a Scottish boy and one of the foreigners. They were going to settle matters round the back. Our boy headed off there and I had to tell the other one: ‘Dinnae be daft, I know him, you could end up with a sore one’.”
Back to Wembley: in the countdown to kick-off, as the Sterling-Gomez spat was relentlessly debated, I started to see it as less of an inconvenience to the night and more of a selling point. Less of an embarrassment, more of just another episode of the England soap opera.
How many times has there been a full and frank exchange of views between two forthright Germans, two passionate Italians, two obstinate Dutchmen? Many, I bet, and yet such incidents haven’t stopped these nations putting out grown-up and serious-intentioned sides who’ve all won trophies since a side in white last did. England need to get a grip. And so do their ridiculous fans. When Gomez made an appearance from the bench on Thursday he was booed. He was the new bad guy because in the soap opera, clearly scripted by an imbecile, one is always needed. It used to be Sterling but, well, he turned into quite a good player. Sterling at least had the good grace to express his sorrow at the jeering, given that he was the one who’d caused all the trouble. The last word should go to Keane. When he was told that Sterling had apologised to “the group” he was appalled. How touchy-feely Californian, he probably thought. How un-English. And given that Sterling & Co hope to emulate the achievement, how un-1966.