England’s catastrophe against Iceland was a collective effort. As the players lost their grasp of the basics on the pitch, Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney chief among them, Roy Hodgson and his coaching staff looked on helplessly from the touchline. “He is watching the game like a cow watches a train pass by,” was one Belgian commentator’s verdict on the manager. “He has no idea what is happening.”
Despite ducking out of the post-match press conference in Nice, Hodgson can trust he will feature prominently in the subsequent inquest. Indeed, it is difficult to look beyond him when considering most of the mistakes which led to England’s untimely exit. But there is another name who has been singled out, and not for the first time. Sky Sports News have been briefed that senior England players questioned Raheem Sterling’s selection for the Iceland encounter.
That fingers have been pointed at one individual sums up the cowardice that crept into England’s play as the game unravelled on Monday night. As players stopped showing for the ball, like statues struck by the impending doom, one wonders if the blame game was already afoot in their minds. Hodgson certainly had an exit strategy mapped out; his conveniently prepared statement appeared to be the only thing he didn’t make up on the spot in France.
But what is it about Sterling that rankles? As a developing 21-year-old under enormous pressure and scrutiny, he deserves patience from fans and the media. Instead there has been little restraint. His performances against Russia and Wales were certainly below his capabilities, but the criticism that followed was both excessive and unpleasant. “Without his pace, would he be a professional?” asked Joey Barton. If only Barton’s brain were as quick as Sterling’s feet.
There is something more sinister to Sterling’s treatment though, wrapped up in the tendency of modern media to appeal to the audience’s base emotions of anger and jealousy. A ticker totting up Sterling’s earnings in real-time was unashamedly included in one article, preying on the absurd resentment caused by his £50m move from Liverpool to Manchester City. How dare this incredibly talented youngster seek to better his situation, as though we wouldn’t all do the same in his position.
The ‘hippy crack’ exposé, fatigue before England’s qualifier against Estonia in 2014, a protracted transfer saga: all fairly routine events in the life of a modern footballer, and yet presented as a rap sheet in Sterling’s case.
Along with most of the squad, he didn’t play as well as anyone would have hoped at Euro 2016 on the back of a challenging first season in Manchester. But has anyone stopped to wonder why his confidence is crumbling? England have an immense talent in Sterling, a player who could light up the international stage for the next decade. Let’s not pander to outrage and destroy him at the start of his career.