In Good Conscience

Missing in action: England treasure Raheem Sterling's halo

One of the remaining boasts that England profess in global sport is that they invented football, set the rules, and even today, have aspirations to be world-beaters.

Thursday night's 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro at Wembley Stadium was heavily wrapped up in tradition. This was the 1,000th official international in England's proud history, which began 147 years ago against Scotland.

Frankly, it was like inviting Harry Kane and Co to fire on the Red Cross.

Montenegro are a proud people, the smallest of the six former Balkan states to break away from the now-dissolved Yugoslavia. But Montenegro have no player in the big leagues of European football. They have no wins in the Euro 2020 qualifiers from which 24 teams out of the total of 55 will compete in next year's tournament.

Uefa, like Fifa, is very keen on making money out of bloated international events. Hence the likes of Montenegro, San Marino, Andorra, Gibraltar, Lithuania and Latvia get guaranteed income - and pretty much guaranteed hidings.

The English Football Association invited as many of Old England's history-makers able to walk to be guests of honour at Wembley for the 1,000th game. Kane played a little over half the game, but registered his second hat-trick in the qualifiers, following a similar feat against Bulgaria in September.

Those three goals on Thursday for a total tally of 31 shot Captain Kane ahead of some illustrious names in the scoring annals - Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse, Alan Shearer and Frank Lampard among them.

It is written and broadcast that (Raheem) Sterling, because of his colour and his rise from a tragic background, is a national treasure of significance beyond the playing fields.

He may have been, but it is disingenuous to pretend that he still has that halo after this week.

Given good health and the willingness of the speedy players to serve the ball to their skipper, the five remaining strikers historically above him should be picked off one by one.

They are Wayne Rooney (53 goals), Bobby Charlton (49), Gary Lineker (48), Jimmy Greaves (44) and Michael Owen (40). None will say it, but I bet some of the quintet would have loved to have had shooting and heading practices against the modern minnows.

Kane is a very decent member of the new generation. He lives to score goals, and with his beloved Tottenham Hotspur struggling, England are now his main opportunity to show off his world-class opportunism.

He was ruthless during his 57 minutes on the field. And, publicly at any rate, he took no side and gave no opinion on the media storm that clouded this landmark international mismatch.

That, of course, was the wretched behaviour, or misbehaviour, of the one English player whose talent and form currently exceeds even Kane.

Raheem Sterling has been put on a pedestal above the stature of a normal footballer. It is written and broadcast that Sterling, because of his colour and his rise from a tragic background, is a national treasure of significance beyond the playing fields.

He may have been, but it is disingenuous to pretend that he still has that halo after this week. Last Sunday, he was mercilessly baited by the Liverpool crowd because of the way he left them for the greater money at Manchester City.

Sterling had, for the most part of that Premier League match, an intriguing struggle against Trent Alexander-Arnold, another of England's finest. Late in the game, Jurgen Klopp moved the versatile Arnold to midfield and gave Joe Gomez a few moments to prove that he can overcome two years of devastating personal injuries.

Sterling turned angrily, aggressively, on Gomez, I believe a reaction to the spiteful treatment he was getting from the Anfield supporters - and the beating that City were taking from Liverpool in that 3-1 loss.

On Monday, when Gomez attempted to greet him cordially in the canteen at England's training headquarters, Sterling apparently responded by grabbing his teammate by the throat and inflicted a scratch beneath the eye and down the cheek.

Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate (and we are told the "leadership group" of which Sterling is a part) consequently dropped Sterling for the Montenegro romp.

Alas, a section of the Wembley crowd ignorantly booed Gomez the moment he came on as a substitute on Thursday.

Even Sterling, watching in the stands, tweeted: "Joe was booed for something that was all my fault." He should have taken responsibility much, much earlier.

As England's second 1,000 matches begin, they will need every semblance of team harmony to ever repeat the only World Cup triumph in their history.

Yes, the Brits led the way. But Brazil's five World Cups, and Germany and Italy's four apiece, are way ahead of what the founding nation have achieved with the ball.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2019, with the headline 'Missing in action: England treasure Sterling's halo'. Print Edition | Subscribe