Gareth Southgate fiddled with his telephone, fiddled with his apparel, fiddled with the collar of his pristine, white England shirt. He folded his arms, as if posing for a team photograph but there was no-one else for the camera to focus on.
The empty seat to Southgate’s right told its own story. It should have contained Mason Mount, but he was unavailable. He could not be at that night’s team meeting either. He could not be anywhere but in his own room. Nor Ben Chilwell. Covid protocols.
Somehow, a Scotland player had tested positive for coronavirus but England had double the number stood down.
Gareth Southgate had to field some tough questions ahead of a pivotal clash at Wembley
The Football Association said they were following Public Health England guidelines; Public Health England said they were been guided by the FA. No wonder Southgate looked a little awkward.
He is usually so assured, so calm in his role. He’s sent players home from competitive matches. He’s picked apart fights involving two of his star men.
He’s been handed racism, antagonism between players and supporters, he’s been made the spokesman for his generation; nothing fazes him.
Yet this, on the eve of a match that may come to define England’s campaign, given that it decides opposition, at a pinch qualification and whether England get to stay at Wembley, seemed a curveball too far.
There was a certain weariness when he recalled stating, in March, that international footballers might be bumped up the vaccine queue.
He recalled the chorus of disapproval at the time and that his views went nowhere. It wouldn’t have mattered, he concluded. Precautions would be the same.
Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell may have broken Covid protocols in speaking to Billy Gilmour
It is still possible to contract Covid after two jabs. The unsaid coda was still present, however.
Maybe it would have been easier to see the way out of this, if the FA could show PHE their Covid passports.
Too late now, of course. So Southgate scrolled his device for updates and thought instead of his matchday timetable.
The meeting at which he would be expected to name his team. The cut-off point for a decision to be made, either late Monday or first thing Tuesday.
Chilwell is yet to play, unless Southgate was naming three different starting left-backs across three matches, and he wasn’t.
But Mount? He’s on every Southgate teamsheet and, while not enjoying the perfect tournament, was nobody’s candidate to be dropped.
Mount and Chilwell were seen talking to Gilmour at close quarters after England vs Scotland
A player is definitely on standby in case Mount does not make it and managers like a settled team.
Southgate denied he was angry with his players, or angered by the position he is in, but this is far from ideal, for all the philosophical musing.
‘I’m somebody who understands that when you’re a manager you can lose a player to injury the day before the game,’ he said.
‘I’ve never been one to throw something at the physio when he tells me the striker has done his ankle.
‘It’s not his fault, it’s not the doctor’s fault, that’s the way it is. Who plays? Somebody else. We crack on.’
The elephant in the room, or in the red zone, as stadium protocols have it, is that Chilwell and Mount appear to have met their Chelsea team-mate Billy Gilmour in an area off the pitch on Friday, which is not allowed.
That would make it the players’ responsibility, their breach, once Gilmour tested positive.
Declan Rice, for instance, has two Czech Republic players as colleagues at West Ham.
Shaking hands, even a hug, in the open air is one thing. If they met up elsewhere at Wembley on Tuesday night to shoot the breeze, that is a potential Covid transgression.
‘You see evidence at every match of interactions,’ Southgate conceded. ‘These things do serve as a reminder of the high risk of missing matches.
Southgate’s England have not impressed as much as the country hoped so far at the Euros
‘The players won’t need us to tell them after this but, for sure, we will. Look, I don’t think we’re being overzealous.
‘The first thing we have got to make sure is that we don’t put any other players at risk.’
There will be those who see this as an opportunity to get Jack Grealish into the team. They are likely to be as disappointed as Southgate was when training was interrupted with the Gilmour news and its repercussions.
Southgate doesn’t believe Grealish can cope with Mount’s defensive load in the team so the promotion is more likely to be Jude Bellingham, in a midfield three with Rice and Kalvin Phillips.
Raheem Sterling keeps his place on one side of Harry Kane, Phil Foden on the other. Nobody can accuse Southgate of playing to the gallery, yet he’ll need them on his side.
At the end of three of four halves at Wembley in this campaign, his team has left the field to the thumbs down. The rejection at the end of the draw with Scotland was noisy indeed.
Picking Grealish would be an easy win. Southgate’s argument would be that he wants that on the field, not in the court of public opinion, and selecting Bellingham was the best way to go about it.
‘My default is always you want to play well, score goals and win,’ Southgate said. ‘We’ve found scoring more complicated in the last two matches.
‘Cohesion takes time. If Scotland was a one-off game and we needed the points to qualify you’d risk more and gamble, but it wasn’t like that.
Picking Jack Grealish would be an easy win, but Jude Bellingham is more likely on Tuesday
‘That might be an unpopular decision and I understand the people in the stadium feeling that, but you’ve got to navigate your way through the first stage of a tournament.
‘But we’re a professional team playing at a high level and we’ve got to accept expectation.
‘We could be involved in matches nobody was bothered about and our life would be a lot duller.
‘We’ve got to cope with a major tournament and produce the football that gives the crowd the excitement they demand.
‘When you’ve had a disappointing performance you want to address that straight away.
‘We’ve got to improve to progress in the tournament. There is a good chance we’ve qualified already, but we’ve got to play better than we did.’
To that end, the first 45 minutes will be crucial. Wembley sounded in no mood for another sluggish display when the final whistle blew on Friday.
England do not benefit from the plucky underdog euphoria that follows the other Home Nations.
Scotland can go three hours without scoring and be acclaimed as heroes; Wales have won a single game in three, and were outplayed during the draw with Switzerland, but are still viewed as having a foot in the quarter-finals. That is not how it works for Southgate and England.
England beat Croatia, but still the country expects bigger and better things as the days go on
Croatia, World Cup finalists three years ago, are now being reimagined as a poor team. Harry Kane’s selection is questioned, so too Sterling’s, as always.
A manager who has consistently fielded the youngest teams in England’s history is now portrayed as a roundhead, cautious and unimaginative; an FA company man, as if English football is brimming with mavericks.
In the world in which Southgate now operates, see how far a cavalier spirit gets. Cross the wrong line in the tunnel area and you end up sitting on your hotel bed, maybe for 10 days.
Pick your team to sail into the last 16 and watch as protocols send you back to the whiteboard.
‘The last 12 months in particular have been remarkable,’ said Southgate. ‘There is an element of what will this job throw up next.
‘It has meant, though, that my staff have had to be resilient, had to be adaptable and had to be calm. We’ll wait to see how this plays out before we rush into changes.’
This was more like the composed Southgate we have come to know. One imagines, though, the moment he left the room he switched on his phone.