OLIVER HOLT: Mr Nice Guy bares his teeth at last and England will be all the better for it… maybe a tin-pot Machiavelli like Jose Mourinho will pause before he makes another clumsy attempt to put pressure on Gareth Southgate to rest Harry Kane
- Gareth Southgate has done superbly with sweeping up other people’s mess
- The England manager was forced to deal with Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden
- Southgate lost patience last week after Jose Mourinho’s words on Harry Kane
- The fact Southgate has bared his teeth and drawn the line is good for England
Gareth Southgate has scored an A-grade in sweeping up other people’s mess in the past couple of months. Last week, he got bored of it. For once, just for once, an England manager stood up for something he believed in and left his best two young players, Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood, out of a squad because they had violated the team culture he is trying to build and disrespected the country that was their host.
There was more. For once, an England manager listened to a Premier League boss trying to tell him how it was and instead of hiding in the corner when Jose Mourinho spouted his disingenuous claptrap about not wanting to tell England when they should play Harry Kane — while actually telling England exactly when they should play Harry Kane — Southgate came out swinging.
It was about time. Maybe it was the boredom of lockdown or maybe we just grew uneasy with the novelty of being nice about an England manager but, for the past few months, Southgate has been damned with faint praise despite leading his team into the closing stages of the most recent two tournaments in which they competed and fast-tracking England’s most exciting emerging talents into his squad.
Gareth Southgate has finally bared his teeth after sweeping up other people’s mess recently
England’s boss came out swinging after Jose Mourinho spoke about Harry Kane’s playing time
Sure, the narrow Nations League victory in Iceland last month was underwhelming and the draw with Denmark in Copenhagen a few days later was more of the same but, even though they were competitive matches in name, the reality was that, because of the chaos wrought by the coronavirus, they were little more than pre-season friendlies. England got away with four points from two games in difficult circumstances.
And anyway, have we really forgotten so quickly how far Southgate has brought England and the change in atmosphere and ethos he has wrought? It is only two years ago that he led his squad to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia, our best showing at a major championships for 22 years. He was lucky, apparently, because England only had to beat Colombia, who had finished top of their group, and Sweden, who had finished ahead of Germany at the top of theirs, to get to the last four.
The following summer, England under Southgate reached the semi-finals of the Nations League. Lucky again, I guess, although I’m struggling to recall too many people saying it was a fluke when Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Kane tore Spain apart in Seville in October 2018 in the early stages of the tournament and handed them their first home defeat in a competitive fixture for 15 years. Oh, and England finished top of their Euro 2020 qualifying group, too.
Southgate has changed England’s atmosphere and ethos and hasn’t done an awful lot wrong
Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden were left out but they are kids and will make stupid mistakes
So when critics say Southgate is given an easy ride, well, yeah, because he hasn’t done an awful lot wrong. And if he has been let down by players in the past few months, then he has earned the right to deal with those players in the manner that he believes is best suited to preserve the culture of openness and honesty, self-respect and unity, that he has built within the squad.
I would have restored Foden and Greenwood to the squad for the upcoming games against Wales, at Wembley on Thursday, Belgium and Denmark after they smuggled two Icelandic girls back to the team hotel following England’s win in Reykjavik, flouting quarantine rules. They’re kids and kids make stupid mistakes. They’ve served a punishment already. But I’m not going to argue with Southgate leaving them out. He is treating them like adults because, when they are on the pitch, they have to take responsibility like adults.
When people in the public eye flout coronavirus rules, they can expect to be pilloried and probably suspended from their jobs. Foden and Greenwood have only themselves to blame. They know that. And their absence opens up deserved opportunities for Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Bukayo Saka.
Southgate has often been accused of being too nice in the past but was right to draw the line
Maybe the lapses that have started to creep in — Sterling’s brawl with Joe Gomez, Harry Maguire’s sojourn in a Mykonos prison cell and the misadventures of Foden and Greenwood — had reached the stage where Southgate’s determination to trust the players was being taken advantage of. Maybe that will change now.
And maybe a tin-pot Machiavelli like Mourinho will pause before he makes another clumsy attempt to put pressure on the England manager to rest Kane. Southgate was absolutely right to call out the Spurs manager.
And he was right to remind Mourinho that, as Euro 2021 approaches, the question is more about how he keeps Kane safe for England rather than how England keeps Kane safe for him. Southgate has been accused of being too nice in the past but, when the nice guy bares his teeth, it has more effect. He was right to draw the line.
MURRAY HAS EARNED THE RIGHT TO CARRY ON TRYING
I was never a huge fan of Jimmy Connors when he was at his peak. I didn’t like the contemptuous way he swept Ken Rosewall aside in the Wimbledon men’s singles final in 1974. I was pleased when Arthur Ashe beat him the following year.
I always preferred Bjorn Borg in that era. But long after that, when Connors was in his late 30s, I grew to love him. In 1990, it felt like his career was washed up. He played three tournaments and lost quickly in all of them. He had various injuries. But then he played the 1991 US Open and, on his 39th birthday, he beat Aaron Krickstein, who was 24, in five sets in a match that lasted four hours and 41 minutes.
He beat Paul Haarhuis in the last eight to reach the semis, where he lost to Jim Courier, but the theatrics of those matches, his fist-pumping, shouting, determination, the way he refused to bow to his age or the youth of his opponents, made me admire him more than I ever admired him in his prime.
Andy Murray has given so much to tennis over the last 15 years and is owed a few wild cards
So when former French Open champion Mats Wilander poured scorn on Andy Murray’s comeback last week after he had lost to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros, then suggested he should not be taking wildcards that could be used by younger players and told him to pack it in, I couldn’t have disagreed more.
For a start, Murray has given so much to tennis over the past 15 years that the game owes him a few wildcards. It was only six weeks ago that Murray beat Alex Zverev in three sets at the Cincinnati Masters. Zverev went on to reach the US Open men’s singles final last month.
Sure Murray is 33, he has had a hip operation and his best days are behind him. Maybe he has a Connors 1991 US Open left in him. Maybe he doesn’t. But I respect his right to keep on trying.
ONLY MAKING A SCENE FORCES REAL CHANGE
San Diego Loyal were leading Phoenix Rising 3-1 as half-time neared in a play-off in the USL Championship last week when one of the Loyal players, Collin Martin, alleged he had been the subject of homophobic abuse from an opponent.
Another Loyal player had been racially abused the week before so this time, rather than play on, Loyal coach Landon Donovan backed his team’s decision to forfeit the fixture.
‘Come on, man, don’t make a big scene,’ Phoenix coach Rick Schantz told Donovan. Sadly, history tells us making a big scene is the only way things are going to change. If it happened here, it would have more of an impact than taking a knee before kick-off.
Landon Donovan was right to make a scene over alleged homophobic abuse during their game
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