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Southgate denies he’s soft touch after latest England controversy

Gareth Southgate maintained a demeanour of calm and focused professionalism in the face of a media grilling over Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood yesterday, but the England manager’s attempts to build a squad in the same image are under strain.

Photo: PA

For the third time in the past four internationals, Southgate spent the build-up to tonight’s Nations League qualifier against Denmark facing questions about an off-field controversy.

The preamble to England’s 1,000th international against Montenegro in November was dominated by Raheem Sterling’s scuffle with Joe Gomez and the winger’s subsequent exclusion from the team. 

Southgate was forced to remove Harry Maguire from his squad before Saturday’s win over Iceland, following the Manchester United defender’s court case in Greece.

In the last 48 hours, when he should have been preparing his squad for a switch to a 3-4-3 formation in Copenhagen and readying Conor Coady, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Kalvin Phillips for the biggest night of their careers, Southgate has been dealing with the fall-out from Foden and Greenwood breaching England’s biosecure bubble on Sunday in Reykjavik. 

The pair were sent home after two Icelandic women visited them in the team hotel following their England debuts in Saturday’s 1-0 win.

It would be wrong to conflate all the incidents — particularly given Maguire fiercely protests his innocence and his conviction has been overturned on appeal — but, throw in call-ups for Kyle Walker and Jack Grealish after high-profile breaches of lockdown, and a picture is emerging of a group of players who believe they are above the rules. 

It has always felt like one thing after another with England, but rarely have the succession of misdemeanours come in such a steady stream, at least outside of a tournament. Southgate’s attempt to build a squad based on openness and positivity — sometimes called his “no d***heads” policy — feels increasingly fraught with difficulties.

Southgate refused to harshly condemn Foden, 20, and Greenwood, 18, yesterday, going only as far as to call them “naive” and the breach “very serious”, with the England boss wary of adding more fuel to the inevitable firestorm.

“I’m very conscious that these two boys are going to walk into something that’s going to be very intense and very difficult for them at their age to deal with,” he said.

The 50-year-old knows as well as anyone in English football how to handle today’s young players, having been England Under-21 coach and the FA’s head of elite development but, given the lengths gone to ensure Foden and Greenwood could make their England debuts, his approach felt too conciliatory.

Manchester City’s statement condemning Foden was, by comparison, far stronger. 

It is a difficult balancing act for Southgate, but the danger is that England’s players begin to view him as a soft touch, something he denied yesterday. 

“The players that have worked with me for a long time know I’m not afraid to make tough calls, so, no, I don’t agree that is the case,” he said.

Part of the uncomfortable truth is that Foden and Greenwood are among the last players Southgate would have wanted to behave so idiotically.

He is already facing calls to draw a temporary line under their fledgling international careers, but he can scarcely afford to do so, given their prodigious talent and the lack of time and internationals before the Euros. If England are to benefit from the tournament’s delay, it will surely be through their increased development.

Southgate, however, will be conscious that if the pattern of off-field controversies continues, it will inevitably start to impact his side’s chances next summer, as well as the public’s view of his open, engaging young squad.

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