IT is almost six months since England last played a game of football.
And Gareth Southgate is now facing up to the very real possibility of having a total stretch of SIXTEEN months without a match.
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As football struggles to locate light at the end of the tunnel during the coronavirus crisis, England’s manager finds himself in an even more difficult professional predicament than most.
Southgate is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
His FA employers are facing financial meltdown, needing to make huge cuts due to a potential £150million shortfall in income.
Yet the only way to relieve that mess — a return to international football in the autumn — would spark an almighty club v country clash, with Southgate caught in the crossfire.
Southgate has done more than anyone to repair what was a horribly fractured relationship between the England set-up and leading clubs.
Yet now all his diplomacy is under threat due to the major fixture row currently brewing.
Uefa remain publicly adamant that they want to play the Uefa Nations League group stages this autumn — with England meeting Iceland, Denmark and Belgium home and away during September, October and November.
The FA know they must risk conflict with clubs because they rely so heavily on gate money and broadcasting revenue from Wembley internationals.
This is despite there being no conceivable date for the finals of that competition — originally planned for the summer of 2021, which now clashes with the postponed Euro 2020 tournament.
The first scheduled dates for fixtures, in early September, seem almost certain to be scrapped — given that the start of the 2020-21 club season is likely to be pushed back to the middle of that same month.
Uefa’s response to this — backed by the FA — would be to hold triple-headers, with England and all other nations playing three Nations League matches in the space of ten days during both the October and November international breaks.
That will enrage club bosses, knowing their players already face the prospect of a congested end to the current season — if the Premier League push on with plans to complete the campaign during June and July.
Southgate is aware of such concerns — which are likely to explode into anger if Uefa press ahead with their scheduling.
During Friday’s teleconference between Premier League clubs, the FA’s representative reiterated their desire to stage internationals later this year — and was not greeted with great support from clubs.
Southgate was first employed by the FA as their head of elite development between 2011 and 2012 — a role in which he took personal responsibility in fixing relationships with clubs, which reached a nadir during Fabio Capello’s reign as England boss.
Since returning to the FA as Under-21 manager and, since 2016, as boss of the senior team, he has continued to work wonders in creating greater harmony with clubs.
The rafts of dodgy sicknotes — often encouraged by clubs — which had dogged a succession of England managers has become almost a thing of the past.
And there was a genuine feelgood factor around the England camp which helped propel Southgate’s men to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals — their best showing in 28 years.
Yet all of that good work is now under threat.
The FA know they must risk such conflict with clubs because they rely so heavily on gate money and broadcasting revenue from Wembley internationals.
Figures for 2019, published this week, revealed the FA to have been in decent financial health before the health crisis.
Revenue increased by 24 per cent to £467m — largely due to increased broadcasting revenue — yet they had only a relatively small cash balance of £39m.
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With the FA’s annual wage bill topping £70m — with 1,186 employees earning an average salary of £60,000 — the organisation suddenly looks bloated and in need of shedding jobs.
Before lockdown, Southgate — who has taken a £1.2m cut to his £4m salary — spent much of his time at the St George’s Park National Football Centre, where many of his colleagues now fear for their livelihoods.
As well as internationals, the FA also expect to lose millions because the FA Cup semi-finals and final will be staged behind closed doors, if at all.
And they know that their hefty corporate hospitality operation for Wembley matches is likely to suffer badly, even once supporters are allowed back in.
The picture all looked so different when Southgate’s men last played — rounding off their Euro 2020 qualification campaign with a 4-0 victory in Kosovo.
There, England’s players and fans were at the centre of an extraordinary love-in, in a nation where the British are loved for playing a major role in gaining Kosovo independence.
England had won their last three matches with an aggregate score of 17-0, topping the European scoring charts for that qualifying campaign.
And Southgate’s vibrant young team looked in decent shape for a pan-European tournament in which they would play the majority of their matches at Wembley.
Now the England boss faces only the bleak prospect of either a 16-month absence for his Three Lions, or a damaging fight with the clubs he’d done so much to win over.
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