The rest of the England players were certainly taken aback by what they witnessed.
It wasn’t that they hadn’t seen an altercation like that between Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez before, for this kind of thing happens a lot in football. It was that they hadn’t seen it with England for some time. Some of the players had never seen it with England.
This is the main reason why Gareth Southgate has taken the surprisingly hardline decision to drop Sterling, his best player, from the landmark occasion of England’s 1,000th game. It is about drawing a hard line regarding what is acceptable behaviour in this squad.
Many might say that’s actually an easy decision, given it’s a relatively easy game at home to Montenegro. That is to somewhat miss the point, because it’s not about this game. It’s about the future, and the culture of the group for the bigger games to come.
One of the issues that Southgate has been insistent on from the very start has been that his England squad would be different in terms of its mentality, that it wouldn’t be undercut from within by overbearing egos and all the problems that come with it. There would be a positive group atmosphere, a togetherness.
A lot of time and energy has been spent cultivating this, most notably with the boot-camp military training.
Some teams call it the “no dickhead” rule. Southgate just calls it having the right atmosphere, a cohesion that’s essential. It is why some big names have been dropped from this England era, and other promising players have been ignored altogether.
There’s a lot of understated cultural conditioning here, which is precisely why Southgate felt he had to act with an overt display of the kind of aggression he has sought to avoid.
That it came from someone like Sterling is all the more important since he is an influential figure in that squad, one of the “leadership group” and a player many of the younger teammates look up to.
Similarly, Southgate didn’t like that such a leader had allowed a club rivalry to interfere on international duty. He’s experienced the negative effects of that before.
Some at Anfield had been struck by how agitated Sterling had got throughout Manchester City’s defeat to Liverpool, going in strong on Trent Alexander-Arnold and then seeing Gomez have a bit of a go back at him. Even his impressive late individual flurry seemed driven by anger.
That clearly hadn’t passed by the next afternoon. Some sources say that it only really took a Gomez greeting with a wry smile to set him off.
That was apparently enough for Sterling – and consequently enough for Southgate afterwards.
This had to be cut out. Any threat of simmering tension had to be stamped out at source. Southgate has thereby made an impressively proactive and swift response. Some of the players have been surprised by this, and feel it is too strong - but it's not like Sterling has been sent home. It's also entirely in-keeping with the culture of Southgate's squads to date.
For his part, Sterling has completely accepted he was in the wrong. He had already privately apologised to the squad by the time the story broke, and then publicly apologised to everyone else on Instagram afterwards.
The group had already accepted his apology. The aftermath was fairly grown up, right down to Gomez pleading for Sterling in Southgate's office. The manager still felt that some kind of sanction was necessary. This is again something that marks a difference in this squad, and this England manager.
Previous regimes have allowed such issues to fester, through soft handling that was all about facilitating egos. It was not good in the long run.
There’s none of that with Southgate. It doesn’t matter that this is his best player, or even someone that’s usually such a positive influence.
It’s about what’s right for the long-term atmosphere of the group. It’s about principle. It’s about not letting anything corrode the mentality of this group, even minimally. A group geared towards togetherness and a way of behaving ultimately can't have one of its best and leading players getting away with throwing an angry strop about a club game. It sets the wrong example, and a parameter of what's acceptable.
It’s why a stance has been taken that hasn’t been witnessed with England before.
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