Gareth Southgate suspects Raheem Sterling has the hump with him, but the England manager remains sure suspending the forward for his bust-up with Joe Gomez was the right decision.
Only a point is needed against Montenegro to secure qualification for Euro 2020 in Thursday’s encounter at Wembley, where the Three Lions will be celebrating becoming the first nation to play 1,000 international matches.
But talk has centred around a fracas rather than football in the build-up after Sterling’s exchange with Gomez, less than 24 hours after the pair clashed towards the end of Manchester City’s 3-1 loss at Premier League leaders Liverpool.
Southgate attempted to clear up the matter in a hastily organised press conference on Tuesday but was still fielding questions about Sterling on the eve of their final home Euro 2020 qualifier.
“As a player, my relationship with my managers and how I felt about them changed day to day, and there were many occasions when I had the hump with them, usually when I wasn’t in the team,” the 57-cap former defender said.
“So, I understand that, I hope that time takes its course on those things and that, you know, there are lots of… as a manager, you hope that you bring lots of good moments for players, there are those occasions where you give them their debut, you give them the chance to play.
“But, there are inevitably occasions when you don’t start them, where you have to take them off, and that will always be the landscape.
“I hope that all of my players know that, first and foremost, I care about them, that I want to be fair with them, that I want to do what’s right for all of them, and that they can lean on me when they need me.
“And I also accept that, you know, at times, they’re not going to be bouncing with joy when they see my face walking through the meal room.
“So, that is part and parcel of being a manager. And if you’re not up for that challenge, then (it’s) better to go and do something else.”
“But I can understand that and, you know, in the end he’s with the group, that’s the most important thing.
“He’s a massive part of what we do – has been, will be. He’s with us for the game tomorrow, he’s back with the team on the training pitch enjoying his football. (He) trained superbly well, as he always does. So for me, the thing is finished.”
Sterling comes back into contention for Sunday’s match at Kosovo and Southgate is confident of sealing qualification without the “outstanding” attacker before heading to the Balkans.
The England boss dismissed a suggestion it may have been difficult to focus on Montenegro in the wake of Monday’s incident, while he again brushed aside talk that the sanction may have been heavy-handed
“Well, of course, when you’re a leader or a manager, everybody will have an opinion on the decisions that you take,” Southgate said.
“Only those that have been in this sort of position really know all the details involved in those decisions or the complexities of any decisions that you take, and everybody will view it differently. People will fall into every camp on every decision that you make.
“So, you have to do what you believe to be the right thing and if you’re only prepared to make decisions to keep, attempt to keep everybody happy, then that’s not a route that’s going to work either because it’s impossible to keep everybody happy.
“So I have to do, first and foremost, what’s right for the country, what’s right for the team and, all the while, I’m trying to look after the players.”