IAN LADYMAN: Southgate left looking foolish after picking Maguire but will his players ever learn?

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By 5.30pm on Tuesday night, most if not all of what Gareth Southgate had earlier said about Harry Maguire had been rendered completely and spectacularly redundant.

The England manager had spoken at length during the afternoon about his faith in the 27-year-old and in the version of events the Manchester United captain had presented to him about what really happened on the island of Mykonos at the back end of last week.

‘I have spoken to Harry,’ Southgate said shortly after naming him in his squad for next month’s games against Iceland and Denmark. ‘I have insight to the story.’

Harry Maguire has been withdrawn from the England squad for next month’s Nations League games after he was found guilty of assaulting and bribing Greek police in Mykonos

All that collapsed around Southgate’s feet before he had even had his dinner. Maguire — according to the Greek courts — was guilty. Guilty of all of it, both the violence and the attempted bribery.  

It was a quite astonishing beginning to a season that the Football Association hope may end with glory at the European Championship and the ripples will be felt through all levels of our game for some time. 

For there is a message in all of this, a lesson even for Maguire, his manager and this generation of England players. 

Maguire will know now that being a United player is different from playing for Leicester and Hull City and even for England. People will never again look through you or past you. To some, and there are enough of them for it to matter, it makes you a target.

Southgate will know now that it is misguided to try to prejudge the outcome of a court case no matter how much you trust and admire the bloke caught in the middle of it all. 

In selecting Maguire for this latest squad, Southgate took a risk that he simply did not have to and has been left looking foolish as a result. It was a rare misstep by the 49-year-old.

As for English football and those at the sharp end of it, it is tempting to wonder if they will ever learn.

For this is a much wider conversation than one purely involving the reliability of Maguire’s testimony or indeed the workings of a Greek judicial process that does seem to have been rather rushed, to say the least.

Southgate said it was a difficult decision over Maguire but he eventually opted to axe him

Southgate said it was a difficult decision over Maguire but he eventually opted to axe him

This is about the ongoing failure of some of England’s best footballers to make the right choices, to stand well clear of some the fires that wait to burn them.

Less than a year ago, Southgate said he wanted players who were ‘high performance and low maintenance’ and added that ‘I know pretty much everything about all of them’.

The message was pretty blunt but doesn’t seem to have got through.

As well as Maguire on Tuesday, Southgate found himself fielding questions about Kyle Walker and Jack Grealish (four Covid-19 lockdown breaches between them) and also Raheem Sterling, forced to take a virus test after attending Usain Bolt’s 34th birthday party in Jamaica. 

Sterling was celebrating Bolt's 34th birthday party in Jamaica

The England star had to take a coronavirus test after Bolt tested positive

Raheem Sterling took a coronavirus test after attending Usain Bolt’s 34th birthday party

Bolt has subsequently tested positive, following a gathering at which social distancing did not appear to be a priority.

During conversations with the media, Southgate said he would be reminding his players of their responsibilities when they get together in camp. He has been England manager for almost four years now. So why is this kind of conversation still necessary?

We hear much these days of the character of the current group of England stars and it is true that they are, by and large, a rounded and intelligent gang. This is reflected in their football.

Southgate was also right to say on Tuesday that he wouldn’t win anything with a ‘best behaved XI’. 

Every team needs some devil and it is worth noting the England side that came within a missed Southgate penalty of reaching the final of Euro 96 had Paul Gascoigne and Tony Adams in it.

Adams was captain of Terry Venables’ team that year having already spent time in jail.

Paul Gascoigne (left) and Tony Adams (centre) were part of Terry Venables' Euro 96 squad

Paul Gascoigne (left) and Tony Adams (centre) were part of Terry Venables’ Euro 96 squad

Equally, it is very much the case that times have changed. Whether they like it or not, modern players are more visible than they used to be and as a consequence, more vulnerable. It is baffling that a minority of them do not understand that.

Character references for Maguire are not hard to come by and it was interesting how quickly his club leapt to his defence last night as a statement issued by United within minutes of the verdict stopped short of accusing the Greek authorities of a stitch-up — but not by much.

That felt telling and it is clear that Maguire’s legal team, given the time, will present a more robust and deeper case for their client when his appeal is heard in the weeks to come.

There is nobody in English football — save the odd supporter of a rival club — who will not wish Maguire to be exonerated.

We would all very much like to believe his version of events just as wholeheartedly as his international manager did.

There is nobody in English football who will not wish centre back Maguire to be exonerated

There is nobody in English football who will not wish centre back Maguire to be exonerated

It is also ludicrous to talk in terms of Maguire’s career being at risk. Rightly or wrongly, sport tends to move on very quickly from things like this and doubtless that will be the case here.

Maguire will not play for England next month but he will again soon. It would, meanwhile, be a surprise if he misses a single game for his club.

His foolishness remains beyond doubt, however. Why was he in that bar at that time? Why did he go there? Why do any of them?



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