Sitting in front of an iPad in a small room in a Surrey hotel, a man in a tracksuit finally got to the heart of the matter.

‘For all of us, it’s tough at the moment, isn’t it?’ said England manager Gareth Southgate on an early evening Zoom call. ‘These are tough times for everyone and every industry. People at home are worrying about losing jobs, worrying about health, worrying about family and kids’ education.

‘It’s hard for everybody and we need to keep pulling together as a nation because we can only come through it strongly if we do.

Gareth Southgate is increasingly concerned of a national malaise in terms of coronavirus

He has lost three players from his latest squad and he is irritated at the number of breaches

‘I worry that everything is becoming a bit divided now and we have to get back to where we were in the middle of lockdown. I felt really positive then.

‘Everybody was supporting the NHS, doing shopping for their neighbours. But there is a lot of disharmony now. We are all in this situation together and we need to work together.’

Southgate was talking nominally to preview Thursday night’s friendly against Wales at Wembley, but he had broader points to make and it was good to hear them.

The 50-year-old is a diplomat at heart, a natural leaning that serves him well in his role.

But there was nothing middle-ground about what he said on Wednesday night. This was a football manager clearly irritated by the constant drip of Covid-19 indiscretions by players he selects and concerned that it reflects a wider national malaise as a nervous country heads into winter.

Is it Southgate’s responsibility to worry about the health, unity and direction of the nation? Not really, but in choosing to make it so on Wednesday night, he struck a tone that should resonate far beyond Thursday night’s dressing room.

Asked for his feelings on Tammy Abraham, Jadon Sancho and Ben Chilwell failing to adhere to Covid guidelines by attending a party at the weekend, Southgate’s message was the clearest he has delivered over recent weeks.

Tammy Abraham (left) and Ben Chilwell (right) were the latest England internationals to breach Covid-19 protocol as they attended a surprise party for the former over the weekend

Jadon Sancho (left) also attended and Southgate has been irritated by another player breach

‘The young players don’t have the credit in the bank yet,’ he said. ‘They need to remember that it’s an honour to play for England and these things play a part in my thinking. I have to be careful about being on my moral high horse. These are unique times and everybody from politicians to footballers to businessmen have erred.

‘I have been a young player. I know what it’s like. Young people will make mistakes, but they have to understand there will be consequences. We have to help them understand how these things affect the team and how it may limit their opportunities.’

The frustration for Southgate is that some of his players do not seem to be learning. They feel the rules around the virus do not apply to them. Again, it was a point appropriate for a wider audience. Southgate spoke more than once about his reluctance to moralise, but he missed the point there. Abraham, Sancho and Chilwell — quarantined at least until Sunday’s game against Belgium — were in breach of the Government’s rule of six at the weekend. That’s not a moral issue, it’s one of common sense and responsibility.

They chose to ignore the rule and Southgate has been left to deal with the fallout — just as he was when discussing for the first time Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood’s Covid breach in Iceland last month.

The latest fiasco follows Phil Foden (left) and Mason Greenwood (right) lockdown breach in Iceland when the pair of them invited girls back to the team hotel breaking Covid-19 protocol

No wonder he looked a little wearied by it all on Wednesday night. No wonder there was a clear shift in his stance.

Discussing Foden and Greenwood last week, he sounded rather pastoral. ‘They have suffered enough,’ he said. On Wednesday, though, he bristled.

This will be a challenging nine months for Southgate as he tries to prepare a team for the European Championship next summer and there are imponderables everywhere.

Will he lose key players to the virus? Will clubs release players he wants as a congested fixture list takes its toll through winter and spring? Will the Euros be played in empty stadiums? Will it be played, as scheduled, all across Europe? Will it be played at all?

Little wonder, then, that sympathy with those players who don’t seem able to stay indoors for two nights in a row is running short. Put simply, he is not a man in need of extra problems. Thankfully this week there have been brighter moments.

Conor Coady spoke prior to Southgate and described his immense pride at playing for England

Southgate admitted Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin taking his cap off as they shook hands had touched him.

He described another squad debutant, Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, as ‘charming’, while Wolves defender Conor Coady preceded his manager on Wednesday night by talking with great enthusiasm about the privilege of wearing the England badge.

Southgate underlined all that when he addressed his players at the team hotel on Monday. He has told them what he expects. The problem is that nobody — not even the manager — can know yet whether anybody was listening. 

This content was originally published here.