Gareth Southgate’s reaction to the latest unwelcome off-field distraction landing in his in-tray was to describe the England manager’s job as “like no other in terms of what you have to deal with”.
Southgate can provide plenty of recent evidence to prove his point and was presented with yet another unsavoury exhibit as Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were sent home from Iceland with serious blemishes against their fledgling international careers for flouting strict Covid-19 protocols.
Manchester City midfielder Foden, 20, and Manchester United forward Greenwood, 18, were withdrawn from England’s training session – and Tuesday’s Uefa Nations League game with Denmark in Copenhagen – for mixing outside the enforced “bubble” around Southgate’s squad.
If Southgate looked slightly careworn in Reykjavik, gazing out from Zoom at an army of press conference inquisitors, that was perfectly understandable given the new addition to a roll of dishonour he has had to deal with in the past year.
Southgate’s England won popularity, even from those who normally find it impossible, for their down-to-earth likeability during the run to the 2018 World Cup semi-final in Russia.
And while it is nonsensical to suggest Southgate is now presiding over some sort of unruly rabble, there is no doubt some of England’s sheen has dimmed.
Southgate – backed up by strong condemnation from both Manchester City and Manchester United – described the pair as “naive” and the situation as “very serious”, using typically measured tones to disguise what must have been bitter disappointment.
He gave Foden and Greenwood their debuts in Iceland on Saturday only to see them fall at the first fence when it came to discipline away from the full squad, especially in the carefully policed environment governed by the global coronavirus crisis.
For “naive”, Southgate could have substituted “crass stupidity”, as these are two players who, perhaps after serving a period of penance, are earmarked to be part of England’s future for years to come.
The message about the England “bubble” – and the importance of observing Covid-19 protocols to the letter – has been hammered home to everyone in and around the party with such force that there is no excuse, not even youth, for their behaviour.
Southgate is still gathering all the facts. Foden and Greenwood face an anxious, self-inflicted wait to discover their immediate England future.
This, however, is a very harsh lesson. It is to be hoped both players digested it fully before even taking their seats for the flight back to the UK.
Foden and Greenwood are two of England’s brightest young stars; one is flourishing under Pep Guardiola and ready to play an even bigger role at Manchester City next season, the other is an 18-year-old striker with the rare gift of a ruthless, natural goalscorer.
But they will now face close scrutiny, criticism and questions and only have themselves to blame.
Southgate has had extra-curricular activity to deal with in the past year and has been decisive when he has needed to be.
In November last year, he dropped Raheem Sterling, arguably his most important player, after a physical confrontation with Liverpool defender Joe Gomez in a team area at St George’s Park.
Sterling admitted he was the guilty party, with emotions still running high after Manchester City had been beaten at Liverpool in the Premier League the previous day.
Southgate acted instantly by removing Sterling from his squad for the Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro, confirming no-one was above the team ethic and discipline.
When he named his England squad for these games against Iceland and Denmark, the manager initially included Harry Maguire. But the Manchester United captain was then withdrawn hours later after he was found guilty of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and repeated attempts of bribery relating to an incident in Mykonos, Greece.
Maguire was given a jail sentence of 21 months and 10 days, suspended for three years. He is currently appealing against the guilty verdict.
It might have saved Southgate a lot of trouble and embarrassment to have excluded Maguire until the court’s verdict was announced. There is merit in this argument but he had also given himself room for manoeuvre to deselect the defender by saying he would review his initial selection if circumstances changed.
In the large part, Southgate’s England are built in their manager’s image: Modest, hard-working and down to earth. The players are keen to reward a man they admire and respect.
What cannot be disguised, however, is that the latest incident involving Foden and Greenwood – especially at such a sensitive time globally when it comes to quarantines and protocols – is damaging to England’s image and reputation, giving Southgate another headache he could have done without.