It was a jarring sound. Boos for Gomez, as he replaced Mason Mount, really? Gomez? The player who by all accounts had acted with equanimity and maturity by swiftly moving on from the incident which reportedly saw Raheem Sterling grab him by the throat in the England canteen when the club combatants from Liverpool and Manchester City met up for international duty.
A mark of twisted solidarity for Sterling, who has become a fan favourite for England since the 2018 World Cup? A general airing of grievance about the stories of disharmony which have emerged from the camp this week? Who knows. Trying to fathom the thought process behind what motivates a group of grown adults to boo a 22-year-old making only his eighth appearance for his country, and in such circumstances as this week, is enough to give you a migraine.
And even if the smattering of boos emanated from a tiny proportion of the 77,000 inside Wembley, their echoes have the potential to resonate in problematic ways.
The central charm of Southgate’s England project has not been the more progressive football which has been played, or even the increase in performance levels which has taken England to a World Cup semi-final and the Nations League finals. The central charm of Southgate's England has been the carefully constructed culture of positivity, diversity and openness which has served to rebuild the national team’s relationship with the fans.
It’s easy to forget it was only the summer of 2016 when the rancour around England descended to new depths following elimination at the hands of Iceland in Euro 2016. Two years later in Russia, waistcoats were sexy, Kyle Walker and Jesse Lingard were joining in with supporter memes on social media and players and management staff were enjoying seeing the madcap scenes back home where millions of pints of beer were hurled all over England. "It’s massive," said Harry Kane during that summer of love. "We see all the videos. I was one of those fans not too long ago getting drinks thrown over me. It's about bringing the whole country together and seeing them enjoy it."
Something changed that summer. England were genuinely likeable, for the first time in a long time. A team to invest emotion in. And now, so soon after England fans rallied around Sterling and the team when they were subjected to disgraceful racist chanting in Bulgaria, the painstakingly restored relationship between fans and players has been put at risk, at the worst moment possible.
Joe Gomez with England Manager Gareth Southgate during the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier between England and Montenegro at Wembley Stadium on November 14, 2019 in London, England
Image credit: Getty Images
The “5-10 second thing” which saw Sterling briefly confront Gomez has clearly assumed much greater importance than it merits. A lapse on Sterling’s part, no question, but in the news vacuum of the international break it had the space to balloon into a full-blown controversy. The image of a harmonious squad under Southgate was damaged, particularly with repeated leaks from in or around the dressing room as the story failed to be contained.
More damaging by far, though were the boos directed at Gomez which spiralled out of this incident – reminiscent of the occasionally poisonous atmosphere in the national stadium in the late 2000s, which reached a bewildering apogee when Joleon Lescott was targeted in 2009 for the apparent crime of leaving Everton for Manchester City.
It is not enough to write off the Gomez incident as the work of a handful of idiots. Maybe it was. But it clearly had an impact on the team. "First and foremost, the whole dressing room are disappointed with it, because the dressing room are tight,” said Southgate last night. “Every one of them. There's no… contrary to what I'm told has been said in various quarters, all of the players are united. The whole thing was put to bed the other day. Joe had done absolutely nothing wrong. No England player should ever be booed when they are wearing the shirt, ever. I don't get it. So, all of the players are particularly disappointed with that.”
After Raheem Sterling said the treatment meted out to Gomez was “wrong”, Tammy Abraham also joined in with the condemnation. "We said after the game that it was unacceptable,” said Abraham. “You know, we don't need that, really.” On Friday morning, there are reports that Gomez has been left "devastated" by the treatment he received from England fans. Quite understandably.
If a reminder was needed, the 7-0 win over Montenegro qualified England for a tournament which will see them play all three of their group games at Wembley – as well as the semi-final and final, should they progress that far. Though pre-tournament friendlies will be announced at some stage by the FA, England’s next scheduled game at the national stadium is on June 14 in the opening game of Group D of Euro 2020.
Prior to then, Southgate will have to devote a good amount of time ensuring that the fragile peace between players and supporters is rebuilt. Again.