Raheem Sterling has been Gareth Southgate’s go-to man. Mr Reliable. One of the first names on the team sheet, never mind the squad list.
That certainly was the case up until the Qatar World Cup. Since then, Sterling has been left in the wilderness. He’s not featured in any of the four subsequent England squads.
Southgate has shown his ruthless side in the past, expediting the international retirements of Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart. But it would be surprising if he has now decided to do the same with Sterling – a player who has been crucial to the manager’s mission since day one.
Since Southgate became England boss in 2016 until last December, only Harry Kane has been used more often than Sterling. The Chelsea winger won 55 caps in those six years – eight fewer than Kane, but two more than each of Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker and John Stones.
England caps from October 2016-December 2022
So, why the sudden change of heart? And is there a route back into the England fold for Sterling before next summer’s Euros in Germany?
Having been left out of the last four, this is one of only two England camps before Southgate has to name his 23-man squad for the Euros. If Sterling is left out this time, you have to think his chances of making the Euros are slim.
When is the England squad announcment?
England manager Gareth Southgate will be revealing his squad on Thursday at 2pm.
The Three Lions, who have already qualified for Euro 2024, play Malta on November 17 and North Macedonia on November 20 in their final Group C games.
It was the Chelsea winger who opted out of the squad in June, because he didn’t feel fully fit. He’s been overlooked by England ever since.
I asked Southgate about Sterling’s international future directly in September. The England boss neatly side-stepped the crux of the question, saying he’d spoken to the player. Sterling wasn’t happy with the decision to leave him out, but he respected it.
Southgate went on to say he didn’t want to change the attacking players he’d selected in June, with so few Premier League matches having been played in between.
But Sterling wasn’t included in the October squad, either. Despite regular appearances (four) for Chelsea in that month. And a goal and an assist.
Sterling’s omission has been all the more marked when you consider Southgate’s loyalty to three other England mainstays – Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Kalvin Phillips. All three have been repeatedly selected for their country, despite their lack of game-time for their clubs (or in Henderson’s case, his switch to the questionable quality of the Saudi Pro League).
Both Sterling and Southgate have rubbished any suggestion that their relationship has been strained since the Chelsea man left the World Cup camp in Qatar after a break-in at the family’s Surrey home.
But it’s clear that was the turning point in Sterling’s England involvement.
He returned to Al Wakrah the day before the huge quarter-final against France. Sterling had missed the last-16 tie against Senegal, and four vital training sessions. Inevitably, he was left on the bench for the quarter-final – only coming on for the last 10 minutes when England were chasing an equaliser.
England were knocked out. Sterling hasn’t played for England since.
A wider question would be which other winger would have to make way for Sterling to return? James Maddison looks like his ankle knock against Chelsea on Monday night isn’t too serious, so he is likely to keep his England place. As are Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish.
So would Jarrod Bowen make way for a Sterling return? That would be a harsh decision for a man who is in fine form, having just broken the record for scoring in six consecutive away games at the start of a Premier League season.
Southgate’s decision on Thursday could be crucial in deciding whether Sterling will play any part in next summer’s Euros.