Off the Crossbar: Club affairs in the England camp

After last weekend’s hotly contested heavyweight bout between Liverpool and Manchester City, players from both sides made their way back to their home countries for international duty. Tempers flared in the match, called by some an early-season title-decider and reached a boiling point when Liverpool’s Joe Gomez and City’s Raheem Sterling enjoyed a little shoving match in the second half. The two went chest-to-chest for a few seconds before eventually being separated by teammates. It was a fairly minor incident, and both players escaped without any sort of punishment. The match finished 3–1, with Liverpool opening up a big nine-point gap at the top of the table.

But the matter wasn’t quite finished there. Sterling and Gomez are both England internationals and were due to report at St. George’s Park. According to The Athletic, Gomez was in the cafeteria shaking hands with all of his teammates when he reached the City winger. Sterling, a full seven inches shorter than his counterpart, responded by saying “So you think you’re the big man?” before standing up and attempting to put Gomez in a headlock. It was an incident that garnered worldwide headlines, with England manager Gareth Southgate eventually suspending Sterling for the team’s next fixture.

The matter brings to light a problem that has plagued the England camp over the last few decades. With such powerful club ties and their intense rivalries, it has often been difficult for players to put those feelings aside when they play for England — especially since they play with their clubs all-year long and the national team for just a few weeks a year.

Take England’s so-called “golden generation” from the mid-2000s. At the time, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea were at the top of the soccer world, and the England side featured big, talented names like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney. But for the most part, they all played for different clubs, and as such, there were separate United, Chelsea and Liverpool lunch tables. According to former center back Rio Ferdinand, “it overshadowed things … I was never going to walk into the England dressing room and open up to Frank … or Steven Gerrard … because of the fear they would take something back to their club and use it against us.”

And therein lies the rub. In those England camps, the managers never found a way to place England’s success above club success. But it’s an area where Southgate has succeeded by developing team camaraderie and by focusing on one common goal. The Three Lions made a superb run to the World Cup semifinals in 2018, their most successful recent appearance at a major tournament, and truly revitalized belief in the national team in England, with chants of “It’s coming home” ringing throughout the country.

With club rivalries ascendant in England, this will certainly not be the last time that Southgate has to deal with an issue of this manner. He did well to condemn Sterling’s actions and must ensure his players leave their baggage from the club teams at the door when they come in to play for England.