If the path to Euro 2020 has been relatively straightforward for England, to the point that they could well achieve qualification in Prague against Czech Republic on Friday with two games to spare, the question that dominated the build-up to that game was anything but.
Gareth Southgate had a lot of obstacles to navigate – and somehow did so smoothly, even for him.
The England manager was naturally asked about racist abuse directed towards his players, and had to portray that they would in fact be following Uefa protocol and not walking off as Tammy Abraham suggested, protect the young striker, smooth relations with the Bulgarian federation and also offer a typically strong stance on the entire subject.
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He managed it all.
The week had kicked off with Borislav Mikhaylov – the Bulgarian Football Union president and USA 94 hero – complaining that England talking about potential racist abuse in his country was “derogatory”, and Abraham saying he would walk off.
Southgate maintained this was not the case, in talk that was as deft and sophisticated as some of his attackers’ play.
“Well, firstly, the most important thing for me was that all of the players and all of the staff know that they’re supported, that we’re together on every issue moving forward and then of course, inevitably, because we’ve suffered a situation in Montenegro, we wanted to be clear what might happen if something happened in the future.
“We’re very clear on that, there is of course the UEFA process and we need to have faith in that process. Recently, a game was stopped in Italy because of that and then everything else is hypothetical because we don’t know the situation that we’ll be in as a team, or that I’ll be in as a manager. But, we’re very clear in terms of all of the staff, what would need to happen. We want the players to be able to concentrate on football. They want to be judged on their football and what I’ve got to do is provide a safe and secure environment to play.”
It was put to him that Abraham’s view ran contrary to this.
“I think what we would experience, as a group, over the next few days are a huge number of questions and anybody that gets one slight nuance that’s adrift of the general feeling and what was discussed as a group is going to be flagged as a possible disagreement. That’s absolutely not the case. Everybody is very clear. I’m so conscious, the most important thing for me, my players are being put in very difficult situations every time they’re questioned on the subject. You feel that one word out of place, one incorrect phrasing leads to possible problems that could be flagged towards another team, made to make a story towards another team or potentially made to look as if there’s a split or a disagreement within our camp.
“We’re 100% united on how we see things. As I say, I want the players to be able to concentrate on football. I would be surprised if there’s ever been a team that’s as well-prepared over the last two years for anything as our team. And I think the players also, at the same time, have the right to have a voice and to speak their mind openly, and I encourage them to do that because we have a chance to make a difference on a very important topic as well. But, my priority is creating the environment that they feel, going into any match, they can focus on football and each other and be judged on that.”
Lastly, and arguably most impressively, there was the manner he smoothed things with Bulgaria ahead of Monday’s visit.
“I can totally understand why the Bulgarian president feels as he does because we have purely been responding honestly to questions we’ve been asked by you guys. That will then be relayed however it may be relayed in Bulgaria, and the way that that’s pitched could appear provocative or appear that we’re the people who are laying the subject on the table. So, if I was him, and I was only reading those quotes and not knowing the context of why the things were said and the responses were said, then I would feel probably as he does. We are not trying to create a situation at all, far from it. We’re all hoping that over the next 72 hours, we’re just talking about two football matches.
“I think both countries would have a strong desire for that and I have to say again, we don’t look at other countries in a way that we don’t shine a mirror on our own. What happened in Hartlepool a couple of weeks ago [where Dover players] were subjected to racist abuse] was probably worse than things I’ve seen or heard about in many other countries in the world. So, I think we have to be very careful in how we cover everything.”
Serious as the subject is, it says much about how forgiving the entire group has been for England as a team that it was given such prominence, especially since most of the discussion concerned the second game in this two-header.
The tension that should have been reserved for a night that could clinch qualification was instead about the possibility of incidents like that, and to a lesser extent the prospect for trouble with up to 5,000 England fans travelling to a famous stag-party destination on a Friday night.
The reality is that the group has been very easy for Southgate’s side, and they have already put nine past their next two opponents – two previous giants of the European game – in their last two games.
The England manager did not feel the 5-0 at Wembley in March against Czech Republic was a fair reflection.
“Although we played well, the scoreline probably flattered us a bit, so we know tomorrow will be a tough game for us but a good challenge and one that we know if we get the right result, we can qualify for the European Championship, so it’s a game with high motivation for us.”
It is not a game of high intrigue, though.
Southgate’s opportunity to experiment has been curtailed by the illness to James Maddison.
His potential inclusion – and what would have been a first cap – offered the main selection intrigue to this game. As it is, we’re likely to see a similar midfield to usual, and it is highly unlikely that Harry Kane will be replaced by Tammy Abraham in the starting line-up – regardless of their finishing form right now.
Even the question over whether Jadon Sancho will be picked over Marcus Rashford seems less important, because of the drastic difference in form between the two.
It is thereby a weekend that is unlikely to provoke too many discussions on the pitch.
Off it, however, could be a different matter.
That is where the real tension is, even as England face up to another qualification.