BURTON ON TRENT, England (Reuters) - England manager Gareth Southgate attempted to draw a line under the altercation between Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez saying he took ultimate responsibility for the decision to drop Footballer of the Year Sterling.
Yet the England manager, who has made much of the unity and team spirit inside his camp since he took charge in 2016, said he was concerned about the leaking of information to the media and faced criticism from Rio Ferdinand for going public over the incident.
Sterling, one of Southgate’s key players, was dropped from the squad to face Montenegro at Wembley after a clash with Gomez at the St. George’s Park training ground.
The pair had squared off at Anfield in the Premier League on Sunday where Sterling’s Manchester City were beaten 3-1 by Liverpool, with Gomez coming on as a late substitute.
Southgate had said in a statement on Monday that his decision had been backed by the “agreement of the entire squad”.
Yet, speaking at an unscheduled news conference, the England manager made clear the decision was one for which he took responsibility.
“I have discussions with all of my staff and the leadership group but ultimately I am the manager,” he said.
“It is not for me to discuss the details of the incident, there is nothing to be gained from that. In the end I have to find the right solution for the group. That’s a difficult line, you try to be fair when dealing with all players. I won’t always get that right but I am the manager,” added Southgate.
Several versions of the incident have appeared in the British media and Southgate sounded frustrated by the leaks.
“Now, there seems to be all sorts of information being passed from so many different areas,” he said.
“I have said what needs to be said publicly but we have to keep as much as we can between ourselves.”
England fullback Ben Chilwell said that Sterling had apologised for his actions. Gomez was seen on the training ground with a large scratch on his face.
“Joe and Raheem got the chance to talk. Raheem wanted to apologise and Joe wanted to get stuff off his chest as well,” said the Leicester City defender.
“(Raheem) was apologetic, he said it’s not in his nature, which it’s not, but we all know as football players emotions can run high. No one’s trying to make excuses for him.”
Yet Southgate’s decision to issue a statement about the incident and not simply sanction Sterling internally was criticised by former England captain Ferdinand.
“Gareth has handled being England manager brilliantly - up to this point... However, I feel this incident could have been handled better. Keep it behind closed doors and deal with it internally surely?” Ferdinand wrote in a Facebook post.
Southgate said that it was inevitable that the punishment would have become public in the coming days.
“When you have made a decision to not select Raheem it was going to become public. I would rather deal with that now. The decision has been made,” he said.
Sterling has become a key player for England in the past year after being criticised for his displays at the 2018 World Cup.
Last season he was named Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association after scoring 25 goals in all competitions as City won a domestic treble of the Premier League title and the two Cup competitions.
For England, Sterling has scored 12 goals in 55 games but has been a regular under Southgate and scored twice in the recent 6-0 win away to Bulgaria.
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Pritha Sarkar, Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis