Had Gareth Southgate dropped Raheem Sterling for England’s penultimate friendly game against Nigeria last weekend, following the Manchester City forward’s punctuality misdemeanour, there isn’t any doubt it would have attracted more negative attention upon the England camp than would have been necessary.
As it happened, Southgate, just days away from overseeing England’s first fixture in the 2018 World Cup, played it rather smartly. He is not viewed as a disciplinarian, but he stressed to the media afterwards that the player was disciplined. He spoke to Sterling, apparently in not the most relaxed of tones, and insisted he stand before the rest of his England teammates and offer his sincere apology.
Sterling started against Nigeria. He didn’t score, with several chances offered to the City man being spurned, and was booked in the second period for simulation. But his rather average performance didn’t prevent England from emerging 2-1 victors.
A Capello, a Hoddle, or even an Allardyce perhaps would not, in Southgate’s position, have had too much of an issue with dropping a misbehaving player. And maybe, depending on where on the scale of severity you would place a highly-paid footballer turning up 12 hours late to training, omission from the next game’s squad would be the appropriate action to take.
But circumstances, in this case, are rare. The World Cup is days away.
An assault rifle inked onto Sterling’s right calf has helped the 23-year-old in being the England player most afforded attention by the media, albeit not the sort of attention he, his teammates or his manager would have welcomed.
He has had the tattoo since last year, and according to the player, it is yet to be completed. It is a commemoration of his father, who was shot dead when Sterling was two years old.
Naturally, Southgate has had to field questions on the issue in his recent press appearances. He very calmly asserted his position, stating he was fully behind Sterling, saying he understood the deeper meaning of the artwork. He said he backed Sterling to move past this, and that it would not affect his performances for England in Russia.
Whether Sterling actually plays well in the tournament is another thing. The worry, from the England camp’s perspective, might be that should the former Liverpool player fail to deliver in his second World Cup outing for his country, it could all come back to these past seven days. His concentration was blown, they might say. His name splashed across the sports papers in a negative light contributed to his poor campaign, they might write.
It is possible Sterling won’t shine in Russia. Last season he netted 23 times in all competitions, making it his most fruitful scoring campaign to date. He was a consistent feature of a Man City team that succeeding in not only winning the Premier League at an absolute canter, but also became the first side in Premier League history to record a three-figure points tally.
And yet, he hasn’t yet seemed to be able to carry his club form over into his international duties. It is just a few months shy of three years since he last converted for England in a 2-0 win over Estonia at Wembley.
Though his finishing is gradually improving, Sterling is still more than capable of missing, and missing badly.
But Southgate has shown faith in his player. He’ll likely start him against Tunisia on June 18th. Marcus Rashford’s terrific performance against Costa Rica on Thursday night may have given the manager a little more to think about as they prepare to jet off to Russia.
One of those positive problems; a good problem, that not many England managers in past have been blessed with on the eve of a major international tournament.
What Southgate has managed to do, ever since taking the job after Sam Allardyce made his unceremonious exit, is prove to everyone that what he lacks in screamy shouty disciplinary intensity, he more than makes up for with calmness, clear-thinking, logic and an ever-growing ability to ease pressure on his players.
And those qualities will be needed in abundance if this England squad (a squad well picked) are to make any noise at this World Cup.
Southgate has surely won over a lot of his initial doubters since he took up the role full-time. He’s done very little wrong during his time in charge. Most decisions he has made have been met with very little resistance.
But now everyone will see whether it has all been for nothing, or if the former England under-21 coach has found a solution to England’s recent turmoil on the biggest international stages.