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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Perspective needed over furore caused by images of leaked England team

While many have accused the British press of undermining the team - hardly new phenomena at a major tournament - the idea that a massive cat has somehow been let out of an equally massive bag is fanciful

England's assistant coach Steve Holland attends a training session at Spartak Zelenogorsk Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Holland apologised to the squad after images were released of him holding what appeared to show England's team to face Panama. Paul Ellis / AFP
England's assistant coach Steve Holland attends a training session at Spartak Zelenogorsk Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Holland apologised to the squad after images were released of him holding what appeared to show England's team to face Panama. Paul Ellis / AFP

As far as England scandals go, the fallout from leaked pictures of Gareth Southgate's supposed line-up to take on Panama is far from sensational, although hardly ideal.

Preparations for the match have been overshadowed by speculation about the line-up after assistant manager Steve Holland was pictured on Thursday holding a note that appeared to outline England's plans for Nizhny Novgorod.

The sheet spotted in training seemingly showed that Ruben Loftus-Cheek would come in for the injured Dele Alli against Panama, with Marcus Rashford replacing Raheem Sterling at the front of the 3-5-2. Holland apologised to the players during Friday's training session, while many have questioned the wisdom of publishing images that could give England's opponents an advantage.

While many have accused the British press of undermining the team - hardly new phenomena at a major tournament - the idea that a massive cat has somehow been let out of an equally massive bag is fanciful. As in most instances, perspective is needed; England are playing Panama, a team appearing at their first World Cup, not one of the elite teams, who most likely wouldn't bat an eyelid at any line-up Southgate put out. The leaked images are a mild irritation, certainly, but hardly fatal.

A recent BBC documentary The Impossible Job: Managing England reeled out a succession of former managers scorned, hurt or humiliated by a series of stories that more often than not had very little to do with football. From 1966 World Cup-winning Alf Ramsey to one-match Sam Allardyce, the British press have never needed much incentive to take down any England manager perceived to be on a pedestal other than perfect.

Southgate has done as much as anyone to address the schism between England team and media. As a player at major tournaments, the former defender has seen just how quickly the press can turn public opinion against the national team. The sight of Dele Alli joking and relaxing, even throwing darts with members of the press corps at the media centre before last Monday's 2-1 win over Tunisia in their opening Group G match, shows a group savvy to the need of being on friendly terms with the people writing and broadcasting about them.

Neither Southgate nor his players see irreparable damage done by the leaked photographs - "It doesn't bother me in the slightest" - was Soughtgate's response, while Hernan Dario Gomez, his opposite number for Panama, said knowing England's potential line up "doesn't give me or afford me any advantage".

Regardless of the England personnel on Sunday, Panama are unlikely to alter their plans for the match. The Central Americans were game in their 3-0 defeat to Belgium, but are set up in a way that means going long periods without the ball and utilising the pace and incision of Anibal Godoy and Blase Perez on the counter-attack.

On whether Rashford or Sterling will play for England, Gomez added: "It doesn't matter, because if one doesn't play the other is just as good anyway."

Kyle Walker, irked rather than irate, offered some editorial guidelines: "I think if you guys just try and keep it to yourself and don't bring it out to the world because it's not going to help us come the later stage of the tournament."

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The England defender, a veteran of three major tournaments, added that the team's relationship with the media is "better than it has been in the past" and "has been great" in the buildup to Russia, but that the relationship "is still a work in progress".

Regardless of when Southgate reveals his starting XI, Walker said he hopes everybody gets behind the team moving forwards.

"I think it's the nation's job," the Manchester City defender added. "We're England, we're all one nation and we all want to do well.

"If that's on the pitch, coaching staff, fans or anything, we all want to do well and want England to get right to the later stages and all being [well] win it."