Gareth Southgate has warned his England players of the hostile environment awaiting them in Montenegro as they seek to extend a pristine start to their Euro 2020 qualification campaign.
England’s two previous visits to the 15,000 capacity Podgorica City Stadium have been marked by ugly incidents on and off the pitch. Wayne Rooney was sent off for retaliation against Miodrag Dzudovic in 2011 and Southgate was present six years ago when the goalkeeper Joe Hart was pelted with cigarette lighters, pens and bottles. Ashley Cole was spat at while taking a throw-in during that 1-1 draw, smoke bombs and flares were set off in the stands and home fans fought among themselves.
Kyle Walker, the only player in Southgate’s squad present that night, addressed the squad at a team meeting at St George’s Park in Burton on Saturday. “Kyle spoke a bit about the experience to help the players prepare for what’s coming, so that it’s not a surprise,” Southgate said. “I expect all the players, even the younger ones, to show leadership in their own way but to have the older ones setting the example in those tense moments in particular.
“Maintaining composure is something we’ve talked about a lot. Our undoing in tournaments has often been a lack of discipline in matches. That’s expected of this group now. They have to respond in the right way, stay calm in tense moments. A lot of times, if a team goes down to 10 men, it clearly influences the result. We have to make sure we don’t allow them that opportunity, ensure our mentality and discipline are right and we focus on the things we can affect.”
The Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was hit by a burning flare during a qualifying game for Euro 2016 at the venue four years ago. Uefa awarded that tie to the visitors and ordered Montenegro to play their next fixture behind closed doors. “We have certainly witnessed flares on the pitch here and we’ve spoken about not going over to deal with those on your own,” Southgate said. “It’s the referee’s responsibility to deal with anything thrown on the field. We have to alert him to it. There is a danger in picking those things up to remove them yourself. We’ve made the players aware of that.
“It will be intense, a passionate local support but I have no hesitation [selecting young players]. This is part of their education. To be a top team, we’ve got to adapt to every environment. A Friday at Wembley is always a different sort of experience to going away from home in a qualifier. The only way they can learn and improve is to go through these experiences.”
Southgate will conduct fitness checks on Dele Alli, who has played only twice since mid-January, and Jadon Sancho, who turns 19 on the day of the game, having complained of tightness after his exertions at Wembley. Calum Hudson-Odoi would be a viable alternative on the flank, while Declan Rice should start for the first time. Jordan Henderson will require a fitness test on his ankle before discovering whether he is to win his 50th cap.
Raheem Sterling, scorer of a hat-trick on Friday, will be just shy of that landmark himself having been elevated into Southgate’s leadership group within the squad. Fabian Delph, Eric Dier, Ashley Young, Henderson and Harry Kane had formed that core of experienced players at last summer’s World Cup. “Raheem came in when Young dropped out,” Southgate said. “In between November and March, observing his maturity and influence, I felt that would be a good step for him. When you speak to other young players, he’s one of the first they speak about making them feel really comfortable in this environment. We’ve had three or four players captaining the team and Raheem is developing lots of the qualities those guys have. He’s shown some outstanding personal qualities.”
Henderson said: “It’s been really good for me because I’m close to him, to see his progression as a player and a person. We knew he had something special at Liverpool. You could see how good he was, and he had the right mentality. I feel as though he’s more of a leader now in the England team. That’s come with experience. But he’s always had that good mentality towards football.
“I knew from the minute I started training with him that he’s a special player.
“He wants to play at the top, to improve and be the best player in the world. For me he’s going in the right direction. We all know how good a player he is and he has the right mentality to keep wanting more and stay hungry. It’s been a pleasure to watch him grow in the last few years.”