JEFF POWELL: Gareth Southgate needs to whip England’s mutinous crew into line quickly

In the vernacular of Covid-19, England returned a false positive with the result of their Belgian test.

Victory over the No 1 football country in the world disguised the virus eating away at our national team.

That the 2-1 defeat of Belgium followed a 3-0 stroll against Wales served to heighten a false sense of complacency, which barely had time to take hold before England returned to Wembley only to be beaten by an indifferent Denmark.

Harry Maguire let England down against Denmark and must be brought to book

A preceding goalless draw in Copenhagen and a scrappy 1-0 win in Iceland were conveniently forgotten.

As was the inconvenient truth that England were outclassed by Belgium and fortunate to win.

As for that virus, in this case diagnosed as indiscipline, a second spike came with Harry Maguire’s sending off which reduced Gareth Southgate’s team to ten men and was quickly followed by Denmark’s winning penalty. 

Never mind that this signalled England’s only defeat in a year. The rot is setting in this autumn, as this mish-mash of European competitions is getting more serious.

The lack of professionalism is as out of control as coronavirus in the northern powerhouse.

Two of England’s supposed next generation of stars were sent packing from Iceland after being caught smuggling a couple of local groupies into the team hotel.

Three more were slung out of the squad before the Wales game for going to a socially undistanced party.

So much for dedication to the game or obedience of the pandemic restrictions.

England were fortunate to beat Belgium and the victory had only papered over the cracks

England were fortunate to beat Belgium and the victory had only papered over the cracks

They were young, stupid and should consider themselves lucky if and when they ever see the white of an England shirt again. But it is Maguire who stands exposed as the epitome of the problem.

The alcohol-fuelled altercation in which he became embroiled with police while holidaying on a Greek island went beyond the anti-social indiscretions of the kids.

So much for the captain of Manchester United and the supposed pillar of England’s defence who is expected to set an example.

Certainly, Maguire is entitled to a qualified presumption of innocence while he appeals against a hat-trick of convictions in Greece. But that does not necessarily extend to his being selected for his country, nor his club for that matter, until that final verdict is brought down.

Which is where Southgate, as well Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, went sadly wrong. They could simply have left Maguire out on the perfectly reasonable basis that his mind cannot be fully concentrated on the game while the wheels of justice turn even more slowly than he does on a football pitch.

Reece James was sent off after the whistle against Denmark - the indiscipline is worrying

Reece James was sent off after the whistle against Denmark – the indiscipline is worrying

Picking him sent the wrong message and how heavily his managers have been punished for their misplaced tolerance: Maguire sent off at Wembley; Manchester United 1, Tottenham 6.

The longer it goes the more Maguire is revealed as vulnerable to extreme pace on the turn. As is Virgil Van Dijk, by the way: Aston Villa 7, Liverpool 2.

The two most expensive defenders in the world, not just the Premier League, now look ludicrously over-priced, over-paid, over-rated.

Maguire most embarrassingly so. He was floundering around Wembley on Wednesday night like a ship without a rudder and the second yellow card must have come almost as a personal relief.

Jordan Pickford is not the successor to this country's lineage of great goalkeepers

Jordan Pickford is not the successor to this country’s lineage of great goalkeepers

Which left his England boss struggling to deal yet again with the issue of discipline, or rather the lack of it, on and off the pitch.

In part this is of Southgate’s own making. It was his decision to trust Maguire’s version of events in Greece and carry on giving him the honour of playing for England. Over-heated Formula 1 racing cars don’t backfire so ear-shatteringly.

There has been a tendency to sympathise with Southgate, despite England’s continuing World Cup and Euro failures, and to shield him from criticism for the misbehaviour of too many of his players.

To some extent that is understandable. Our Waistcoat Man is courteous, thoughtful, patient, plausible, intelligent, pleasant, most likeable.

But when it comes to managing football teams, it is all too easy to be too nice.

Gareth Southgate can send the right message by being tough and whipping them into line

Gareth Southgate can send the right message by being tough and whipping them into line

Southgate has young players with the potential to take England far. But only if it is clear to them that they will be brought to book if they let the side down..

Maguire has to go. So does Jordan Pickford if England are to find ever again a successor to this country’s lineage of great goalkeepers. And they are not alone.

Spoiled boys with inflated egos are also an issue. Reece James ruined an impressive full England debut by joining Maguire in the Wembley red-card club of shame by ranting at the referee after the final whistle on Wednesday night. Presumably he could not take defeat.

Unless Southgate whips his mutinous crew quickly into line, he had better get used to that sinking feeling. Belgium, away, are up next.