It wasn’t until Monday training started, and it became clear Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood weren’t there, that their England teammates realised something was up. Some could see a dark humour in the situation, after the duo were banished for bringing girls back to the squad hotel.
It is that most vintage of footballer controversies, in these strangest of days. That very timing makes this “a very serious situation”, to use Gareth Southgate’s own words, for the England manager. The severity started to dawn on Southgate and everyone else when the prospect arose of Tuesday’s match getting postponed, and the Football Association had to start assuring their Danish counterparts.
That is also why this is no ordinary breach of discipline, of the manner that has made this a growing issue for Southgate. Professional football – and especially professional football across international borders – is only taking place because of elaborate rules and exemptions for athletes, that Foden and Greenwood carelessly disregarded. It is a dismal example.
You can see why Southgate sometimes frustratedly feels like the job of England manager actually means being “a spokesman for the nation”, as he lamented on Monday. There weren’t too many questions regarding any knocks here. This was yet another England international match overshadowed by a moral controversy over something else entirely, that attracts a general interest. In this case, it was essentially young people and Covid restrictions.
Nevertheless, it still throws up two issues as regards Southgate’s running of the team.
The first is about its discipline, and public perception. This is just the latest incident, to go with Harry Maguire’s arrest in Greece before these games, and the fight between Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez for the last camp, albeit 10 months ago. The second is whether Southgate is a “soft touch”.
That question was directly put to him in his newspaper briefing, after Southgate had revealed that he would now “try and support” Foden and Greenwood. His public words were also much less critical than those of Manchester United and Manchester City, who were very strong on their players.
The England manager, naturally, didn’t agree.
“Well, I don’t think I can be responsible for discipline when players are not with us,” Southgate first said, in relation to Maguire. “We then have to make decisions on how we approach it. I think whenever there have been issues, whether it’s been as an under-21 coach or senior coach, we’ve dealt with them internally, so I think we’ve been very strict and firm.
“I think we like to have a good relationship with the players, but the players that have worked with me for a long time know I’m not afraid to make tough calls, so no, I don’t agree that is the case.”
Those who have not been picked because of supposed “personality issues” may actually agree with Southgate. Paramount in his thinking is the atmosphere of this team, and its chemistry. It is a difficult balance to strike, especially when you have so many star names. Foden and Greenwood are also “generational talents”, to quote many around the squad, and are England’s future.
It is a balance, therefore, that Southgate has again just about managed.
Many will find fault with his public comments on the duo. The strongest he could offer beyond “a very serious situation” was that they were “naive”. As pretty much any successful manager will argue, though, far more important than what he says in public is what he says in private.
Southgate did express his extreme disappointment with the duo. That was made clear. Foden and Greenwood were said to feel “chastened”.
They were already getting set for home by the time Southgate was fronting up for his press conference, but the media was already full of condemnation.
The England manager could see it. He realised there was little need to add to the opprobrium for easy headlines that make him look better. Foden and Greenwood were already in the storm.
“I think I’m very conscious that these two boys are going to walk into something that’s going to be very intense, and very difficult for them or their age to deal with.
“So, whether people like it or not, I’ve got to try and support them through that and I’ve got to try and not add to how difficult their situation is going to be.
“That said, I’m very clear with them and I will be very clear with them on my feelings, and how they need to respond to how they need to react.
“But I think that balance is important and they are two very young players, and you know that I’m very conscious of that.”
Through that alone, Southgate has earned deeper loyalty from Greenwood and Foden. He is now conciliatory towards them when almost everyone else is all-in. The reality is also that the three incidents so far were very different in nature. A one-game dropping for Sterling was just about right, as Southgate made it abundantly clear club rivalry would not be tolerated. The only true misstep has probably been calling up Maguire when there was the prospect he could still be found guilty.
He has made it clear to both Foden and Greenwood how badly they’ve messed up. It is a mature and realistic handling of a situation, that is borne of such juvenile folly.
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