Southgate may pay for making ‘Saipan-lite’ public

Southgate may pay for making ‘Saipan-lite’ public
Raheem Sterling attend a training session during and England Media Access Day at St Georges Park on November 13, 2019 in Burton-upon-Trent, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

History repeats itself and all that, so Irish football fans watched the fallout from the Raheem Sterling-Joe Gomez spat this week with special interest.

International bust-up, you say? Team room schmozzle, you say? Star player sent home, then not sent home, then no-one’s really sure, you say?

If only we had experience of something like this.

England’s own-brand Saipan truly was a pale imitation. We may not produce the same quality of players as them, nor aspire to international trophies in the way they do but, by God, we would have dragged six weeks of saturation media coverage out of this. Liveline would have been ablaze. There would have been comedy songs and calls for cabinet intervention.

It had potential, no doubt. There was physical contact for one thing, which was more than could be said for Saipan. Would history have turned out differently had Roy throttled Mick, leading to a saloon bar-style all-in brawl? It might have cleared the air, though the bill for damaged furniture would have been considerable.

Ster-pan had its own catchphrase too. The bould Raheem asked Gomez if he was “still the big man?” before lunging at the shocked Liverpool defender. It’s not quite “Stick it up your bollocks” but it does have a certain street-corner charm.

Alas, with Jordan Henderson reportedly playing the Niall Quinn role, running the diplomatic back-channels, it was all sorted out with undue haste. Sterling apologised for letting his emotions get the better of him, without even requiring the pleadings of Tommie Gorman. Manager Gareth Southgate likened the dust-up to a family row, which you could also say about Saipan but only if the family you were talking about wore polyester shell-suits and ran the New Jersey waste management racket.

Still, watching this Fisher Price version of his own great conflagration play out, Mick McCarthy would have wistfully noted how sharp the blade of the international bacon slicer still runs.

One of the themes of Southgate’s time as England manager — along with waistcoats and a tendency to sound like he is giving a motivational talk to regional sales managers — has been to banish the club cliques that marred his own time as an England player. Southgate recalls England squads split into factions by club loyalty, the big beasts of Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea eyeing each other suspiciously while he and Nigel Martyn stared nervously at the floor.

For this reason, Southgate’s response to Monday’s incident has generally been praised. Having asked for club differences to be parked at the door, he couldn’t stand idly by while Anfield rancour invaded the sanctity of the St George’s Park chicken and pasta buffet.

Mick had cliques in his Irish camp too — namely Roy and everyone else. Mick’s main job was to make sure the former could tolerate the latter for long enough so that the greater good of Irish football might be served. He managed this reasonably successfully right up until, well, you know what.

By Saipan’s nuclear standards, Southgate has only been dealing with a minor skirmish. We’re talking about a routine qualifier with Montenegro, not the actual World Cup. This was a brief row between players, not a vicious takedown of managerial authority. There were apologies and considered statements and no scenes of aggressive dog-walking.

But Mick could tell Gareth that something tilts out of whack when these spats boil over and enter the public domain. Dynamics shift, loyalties change, positions harden.

Fundamentally, Sterling’s reaction was all about respect. He had lost face in that brief run-in with Gomez at Anfield a day earlier — been ‘mugged off’ in the current parlance — and had seen the social media memes to prove it in the hours in between.

Respect and status matter to modern footballers, on a much greater scale even than in the time of Mick and Roy’s run-in. They are big brands in their own right, particularly one like Sterling whose stellar playing career runs parallel to an off-field profile burnished by widespread admiration for his handling of racial issues and his position as a role model for young black males.

Southgate’s former England team-mate Rio Ferdinand was first to question the manager’s handling of the situation, suggesting he had “hung Sterling out to dry”, and what had happened was nothing compared to the intra-squad killing fields of their playing days. Stories appeared suggesting Sterling himself felt that the manager had overreacted. Tottenham and England left back Danny Rose said the bust-up was “no big deal” and Chelsea youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi described Sterling as “an idol” and a “big leader in the team”.

It’s no stretch to think that the fallout from this incident might just fracture the image of breezy togetherness that Southgate has cultivated. He has worked hard on the perception of his team, eliminating the entitlement and brattishness of the past. To the English public he is the groovy vicar figure, the players eager youth club members taking part in a community litter clean-up.

He talks of consultation with the senior leadership group; the language is of engagement and unity. “It’s brought us a rod of togetherness, which is still there and we’re a united group. I love all of my players,” he said on Tuesday, every inch the spiritual leader. Rod of Togetherness even sounds like the name of a Christian rock band.

But far from Southgate’s family values, this Saipan-lite altercation underlines the powderkeg of testosterone and ego of which a top level sports team really consists, and which all managers must struggle to control. Southgate’s decision to punish Sterling in public fashion has cost him something, nothing like the payload that landed on McCarthy in 2002, but the first leakage of poison into a hitherto unspoiled atmosphere.

It would be especially tough on Southgate if toxic club rivalry damages his international management career just as it characterised his playing days, but as Mick might inform him, that’s life on the bacon slicer for you.

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