For Gareth Southgate it was a reminder that, however well he might have trained his players, however good the preparations have felt and reassuring it is to be back together, the life of the England manager is rarely straightforward.
Southgate, like all his predecessors, has grown accustomed to losing players through injury – Marcus Rashford becoming the latest to withdraw – and he is certainly not the first in his position to experience the jarring contradiction of a Manchester United player, namely Jesse Lingard, being ruled out for England but then playing for his club a few days later.
What Southgate could never have reasonably imagined was that the new kid on the block, Declan Rice, would be outed on the eve of England’s game against the Czech Republic for an old message on Instagram, going back to when the player was 16, that showed him apparently expressing support for the IRA.
“Up the RA” was certainly not the best way, unintentional or not, for Rice to usher in his switch from Republic of Ireland to England – unless, of course, Rice is merely an admirer of the Royal Academy of Arts – and, though Southgate was right to point out that a lot of 16-year-olds post silly messages on social media, without necessarily meaning anything by it, it was a distraction the manager could have done without.
Whatever the younger Rice did mean by that message in September 2015 – and, if there was anything sinister to it, there was no way realistically he was ever going to admit as much – perhaps it was also a reminder for the Football Association to ensure the players in England’s set-up are warned about the potential dangers of social media, in particular when it comes to old posts. Football certainly seemed a more innocent place when tweeting was something for birds, not humans, and it was intriguing to hear Jordan Pickford talking about his own relationship with Twitter.
Pickford was honest enough to say that he would hurry after every game to find out what Twitter had made of his performances and, without actually using the word, left the clear impression he was addicted. How quickly after games? “Five minutes,” he replied. Rather amusingly, it turns out England’s goalkeeper is not the kind of person to overthink the criticism that comes from that world of internet anger – “I can’t overthink, me, lad,” he volunteered, with a nice line in self-deprecating humour – but Southgate did acknowledge that not everyone in the current squad would be so thick-skinned. In the World Cup Southgate advised his players not to bother looking at the messages they had been sent – and that, in hindsight, is probably good advice for Rice at a time when he has been added to the growing list of footballers who have typed themselves into trouble.
As always, it was a relief for Southgate to return to talking about actual football, namely the first game of England’s qualifying programme for Euro 2020, and the possibilities that are open for himself and his players in a tournament that will have its semi‑finals and final at Wembley.
Photograph: Eddie Keogh for The FA/Rex/Shutterstock
Southgate talked in particular about the impact of Callum Hudson‑Odoi since the Chelsea player was promoted from England’s under-21s and the variety of attacking options now that Jadon Sancho is becoming a fixture in the senior squad. “I can say I wouldn’t hesitate to start either of them,” Southgate said, praising their training-ground performances. “Jadon’s profile is much higher because of his opportunities [at Borussia Dortmund] and that’s understandable but, in terms of quality, right the way through their careers it’s been on a par. Callum has people like [Eden] Hazard ahead of him and it’s a different landscape for him but he’ll be absolutely fine, no doubt.”
That is clearly an exciting prospect for England at a time when Southgate says he regards the footballer-of-the-year vote as a straight choice between Raheem Sterling and Virgil van Dijk. “People have talked for a long time about England not having enough creative players,” the manager said. “We’ve got loads.”
What he seemed less enamoured about was Lingard playing for 86 minutes of Manchester United’s FA Cup tie at Wolves on Saturday when three days earlier the FA had been informed the player was not fit enough to face the Czech Republic or travel to Monday’s game in Montenegro.
Southgate, choosing his words carefully, said United had taken a “huge risk” by involving Lingard and said he had rung the player afterwards for an explanation. “He felt that, although he had played, he was very conscious of it [the injury] and at risk during the game. He wasn’t comfortable with it in the game.” Southgate did admit being “surprised” by Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team selection but did not want to turn it into the kind of controversy that flared up when Sir Alex Ferguson did something similar with Paul Scholes during the Sven-Göran Eriksson era.
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As for Rice, he will receive a letter from the FA warning him of his responsibilities and Southgate was planning to speak to him individually at the team hotel. How, Southgate was asked, might it affect the way Rice is seen by England’s followers? “I think they will understand both the situation he has found himself in, transferring across, and the situation today,” he said.
“I think people will recognise their own experiences at 15 and 16 and that you’re not mature. You’re in conversations with friends, you can get giddy and say things that maybe you don’t know enough about or you don’t understand the context. I think our fans and our public will recognise that fact.”