Playing England vs Italy behind closed doors is an ‘embarrassment’, says Gareth Southgate

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Playing England vs Italy behind closed doors is an ‘embarrassment’, says Gareth Southgate
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Gareth Southgate says it is an “embarrassment” that England are playing a home game behind closed doors, as he reminded supporters that their behaviour is a representation of their country, warning that nobody wants to go back to the dark days of fences.

The national side are being forced to play Italy in front of empty Molineux stands for the Nations League match on 11 June, as a consequence of the chaos at Wembley for the Euro 2020 final against the same country. Reflecting on whether that match marked the start of a post-pandemic period that has seen a release of certain behaviours, culminating on “criminal acts” on pitches on the last few weeks, Southgate revealed that his staff had been affected by that day “for weeks”.

The England manager stressed that there is no desire to “go back to fences” but that there was a clear will from the game’s authorities to “secure” pitches as a line has been crossed.

Southgate refused to blame football on its own, as he astutely pointed to societal causes. England are nevertheless on a “yellow card” from Uefa due to the events of the Euro 2020 final, and could face three games behind closed doors if there is further bad behaviour.

“We are where we are, we've got the embarrassment now of playing behind closed doors at home,” Southgate said. “Normally when you watch those things having happened abroad we're all grandstanding about how it’s someone else's problem and how this country should be dealt with and now it’s us. Again, that’s not a good optic for our country.”

That final was the country’s biggest game for 55 years, but Southgate revealed it ended up proving traumatic for many involved.

“It was one of the biggest things that all of our staff that worked with the team, it was one of the additional things that upset them the most, we finish the game, you’ve got the disappointment of losing the game, then we had the racist abuse of the boys and wrapped up in all of that people who were having to deal with what had happened inside the stadium. We were all dealing with that for weeks, really, that wasn’t a pleasant experience for anybody.”

It means there is some trepidation within the Football Association and around the England squad regarding the pitch invasions of the last few weeks. Despite the general jubilation of such scenes, they also saw Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp, Crystal Palace’s Patrick Vieira and Aston Villa’s Robin Olsen either intimidated or outright attacked. Southgate feels a line has been crossed, and that the time for new regulation is now. The FA announced at the weekend they are working with the wider game on precisely that.

“I don’t think anything else needs to happen. Football is looking at what’s happened in the last few weeks and feeling there needs to be a response to it. Obviously people are in other meetings dealing with all of those things, and will be having those discussions. I know that’s happening with the FA for certain. So I don’t think it needs to be scale up any more than it has, it’s already beyond where it should be and where it’s acceptable. And there’s this hard balance of we’ve all historically seen pitch invasions when Ronnie Radford scored [for Hereford against Newcastle United in the FA Cup], there’s joy everywhere, and there are wonderful scenes but unfortunately that’s not where we are now with how people are when we go on, this sort of goading... it’s violence. Some of these things are criminal acts. People are receiving prison sentences so that is correct, you shouldn’t be on the field of play.”

Southgate typically pointed to the wider context, though.

“There’s the football aspect to that, and we’ve got a responsibility to deal with that the best we can. So what does that look like? We have to try to secure the pitches. What we don’t want is to go back to fences. That’s reliant on, of course, the best possible stewarding we can and the best possible policing. But there’s a reality that if people want to go beyond that it is very difficult to stop. So it is up to everybody. It is up to all of us how things manifest themselves in our country.

“Football at various times in my lifetime has become the vehicle for that, people who want a fight, want to do whatever, and we don’t want to head back there. The last 25 years have been brilliant atmospheres in grounds, the game’s brilliant, the families back in, women back in, feeling more comfortable, great for the game, and still a tremendous atmosphere, so it is not that we needed 40,000 blokes in there to make it a great atmosphere, but we are in difficult moment as a country. I recognise that for many people in our society there are financial difficulties, and maybe that is playing a part, we have been in a pandemic with huge restrictions for a long time. I don’t want to be the one standing up saying… I am not wanting to be the pied piper with this. But I know I am in a position of responsibility so I should speak as I feel and that’s what I think.

“That’s from the very top levels of our country right the way through, the only way we can affect it is by the small things being picked upon. And why are we filming ourselves abusing other people, or taunting other people or looking for a reaction, why do people dump their rubbish when they drive out of a service station, those small things make the difference – that has been proved over the years in different environments.

“Yes, football has got to try to manage it, but once people are in the ground you are managing it the best you can. The behaviours are there, and they are going to be apparent outside the grounds and everywhere else. I am not a sociologist. I don’t know why that is. Alcohol and drugs are a part of that equation but we seem to be accepting certain behaviours that aren’t acceptable and it means that everybody is part of that.”

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