Yes, fights happen at football clubs. That doesn’t make them right. That doesn’t mean that a manager who is trying to change the culture of the English game has to tolerate the destruction wreaked by indiscipline or loss of control.
The ill-feeling, the residue of resentment, the distraction and, finally, the deception. The cover-up that would most certainly have followed had England’s manager not chosen to go boldly public on the fall-out from Sunday’s match at Anfield.
Gareth Southgate made the right decision to go public about the incident between his players
What were his alternatives? To lie, and pretend his best player had an injury? What if the truth leaked out? He would appear weak and duplicitous.
To come clean on the night of the game when asked about Sterling’s absence? That would only create a drama to overshadow the occasion of England’s 1000th international, and in all likelihood their qualification for the 2020 European Championships.
It would have been a distraction in the build-up before poisoning a positive occasion. The third option would have been easiest of all. Do nothing. Storm in a teacup. It’s blown over. Move along, nothing to see here.
And that would be the professional way: quite literally. The former professionals — with the bold exceptions of Gary Neville and Martin Keown — are largely agreed on this. The best course of action would be to take no action. Fights occur and are dealt with internally, said Rio Ferdinand.
‘In the various squads I have been a part of, I have seen players get punched in the face, ribs broken, nose busted, head kicked like a football,’ he explained.
Joe Gomez (left) and Raheem Sterling (right) have made amends after their confrontation
Worth remembering, mind, that with the exception of Manchester United, Ferdinand’s clubs — and his country — won nothing. And these fights did have consequences. ‘Head kicked like a football’ refers to an attack on Eyal Berkovic by John Hartson at West Ham.
It happened in September 1998 and both players left the club within the year. Graeme Souness once described Berkovic as the best forward he had ever worked with in the last third of the field. Given that Souness was a contemporary of Kenny Dalglish, it’s fair to say West Ham could probably have done with someone like that.
And it is not as if Southgate hasn’t been around football all his life, too. He has seen a lot of confrontations, no doubt, and may have considered them harmful.
Perhaps he thought the various coaches and managers should have been stronger in sending a message that this behaviour would not be tolerated.
Maybe he vowed that if it ever happened on his watch, he wouldn’t stand idly by; or maybe he just thinks football and footballers should have embraced the modern workplace by now. There are plenty of offices or trading floors full of young men and testosterone. It doesn’t end up in a fight every week.
Southgate knows fights happen but he showed leadership in his handling of the situation
The England manager could have sold out the junior player but made the right call
Do not forget, too, that this was not an incident on the training field, a rash tackle perhaps provoking a reaction.
It is understood tempers can flare in a physical game. Yet this confrontation occurred in a public area where players were relaxing. It cannot be so easily dismissed as boys being boys. Sterling, by his own admission, was overcome by anger and emotion.
What is truly admirable about Southgate’s stance is that he didn’t sell-out Joe Gomez, the junior player. It would have been diplomatic to suspend both team-mates for one match, to pretend fault on two sides.
Southgate didn’t. Whether he witnessed the incident, or sought witnesses, he came to a decision on who was in the wrong and passed judgement accordingly. He didn’t let Sterling off because of his value to the team. He had enough faith in his core principles to demand higher standards and responsibility from even his best player.
For, again, what would be his alternative? To leave Gomez and others outside the immediate starting XI, with the impression there are two sets of rules. One for seniors, like Sterling, another for the rest. And that stuff can fester. What if, in their next training session, Gomez took Sterling out? What if an edge developed between Liverpool and Manchester City players?
Gomez and Sterling’s clash on Sunday spilled over as the Manchester City star lost his rag
Southgate has done as much as he can to settle the matter, to send a powerful message about future behaviour before attempting to shut down the controversy and move on. He cannot allow club animosities to bleed into England’s preparation and, from here, his players know the consequences of failing to accept and respect that.
If Southgate seemed irritated on Tuesday it was perhaps because he had hoped such simple rules did not require explanation. This is a different time. Southgate is the man for it.
If his players do not wish to join him, it will become very obvious what they can do. Even the best of them.