Gareth Southgate has made the bold claim that Liverpool defender Joe Gomez will be “stronger” for his experience this week after he withdrew from the England squad for Sunday's game against Kosovo with a training ground injury sustained on Friday.
Gomez pulled out of the trip to Pristina having failed to shake off a knee injury picked up in a challenge with Kieran Trippier at a session at Watford’s training ground and returned to his club, along with Jordan Henderson who has a viral infection. Southgate had hoped to play Gomez in the final Euro 2020 qualifier following the booing for the 22-year-old at Wembley on Thursday night - which came after Raheem Sterling’s attack on him.
The Manchester City man is back in the team for the Kosovo game after serving a one-match suspension imposed by Southgate for the attack on Gomez at St George’s Park on Monday. James Maddison is also a doubt with a calf injury. Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope is expected to start in place of Jordan Pickford.
On the injury to Gomez, Southgate said: “You couldn’t make it up really if you tried. He’s absolutely fine. He took a clash of knees [on Friday]. We scanned it just to be certain and I think he’ll be fine in a couple of days, but he wasn’t able to train [Saturday].”
He added: “We actually ended up having a chuckle this morning at the ridiculousness of him having to go home in the way he did. It’s been a difficult week for him but one that will make him stronger and one that he’s dealt with really well.”
Southgate was asked by a Kosovan journalist at the potential irony of Sterling being booed by English fans but cheered by the home crowd – who are eager to show their support for England’s black players in the light of racism in Bulgaria. The England manager replied: “That would be ironic. That wouldn’t even be the most ludicrous part of the week.”
Southgate said that he believed the break would benefit Gomez. “I think now is a good moment for him just to go home for a couple of days, clear his head. The pleasing thing for me is that we’ve got him back on the pitch. I think the fact that Raheem put out the tweet the other night [condemning the booing and exonerating Gomez of any wrongdoing] was real closure on that whole incident. We get Raheem back on the pitch. We won the match on Thursday and we can now just look forwards.”
The Kosovo manager Bernard Challandes joked that the only way to stop Sterling was to “break the leg!”... “but that is not our style,” he said, “we are too nice.” The locals in Pristina gave the England team a warm welcome at the airport in a young country grateful for the British involvement in their struggle for independence. Challandes said: "We can laugh a little but it is the 1,001st game for England, it is our 29th. They are a little more experienced."
Southgate said that he believed the squad’s spirit that was such a crucial part of their progress to the World Cup semi-finals last year remained intact and he even went as far as to claim that having to deal with the Sterling incident will “strengthen the bond” between the players.
There is still major upset on the part of Gomez, an innocent party in the attack by Sterling. Southgate said: “What I sensed from the questions I got in the last two days is so far removed from the team I’m seeing socialise and train together, it’s incredible. So, they are so tight. We’ve seen Raheem’s posts regarding Joe and I had a long chat with Raheem [on Thursday]. He’s looking forward to the game.”
Southgate added: “If anything, I think it will just strengthen the bond of the players. That’s the team, they’re going through lots of different experiences with Bulgaria and with Montenegro that are only bringing them closer together as a group.”
There remain misgivings on Gomez’s part about his treatment, first at the hands of Sterling and subsequently when it was felt he was not fully exonerated as the innocent party. Following the booing at Wembley the player and his family were visited by Southgate and his coach Chris Powell privately. Southgate has had to placate both parties, also trying his best to rehabilitate Sterling and the situation remains delicate.