England's Rahem Sterling, right attempts to control the ball under pressure from San Marino's Jose Adolfo Hirsch, left, during the Euro 2016 Group E qualifying match between England and San Marino, at Wembley Stadium in London, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
England's team coach Roy Hodgson, left, watches the Euro 2016 qualifying match between Estonia and England in Tallinn, Estonia, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Liis Treimann)
LONDON — Roy Hodgson has to find ways to control England's opponents — and his own tongue.
The England coach is again in a public storm of his own creation just when the results, if not the performances, should have given him some breathing space from critics. Since avoiding the axe despite England's worst-ever World Cup showing, Hodgson has ticked off four straight wins, including three in European Championship qualifying, without a goal being conceded.
But England left Estonia after laboring to a 1-0 win on Sunday, with the team's liveliest prospect having his commitment to the national team questioned after Hodgson revealed that Raheem Sterling asked to be rested.
"I don't think I'm in my best form at the moment because I'm feeling a bit tired," Hodgson recalled Sterling as telling him on the eve of the Euro 2016 qualifier in Tallinn.
Sterling got what he asked for, dropping to the bench and only playing the last 25 minutes in Tallinn. The 19-year-old forward could undoubtedly benefit from some rest, having started all but one of Liverpool's 10 games this season and the three England matches before Sunday.
Liverpool's poor start to the season, after May's surprising second-place finish, and England's World Cup woes have only increased the dependence on Sterling's pace and trickery. However reliant the gifted teenager seems now to club and country, Sterling's coaches must avoid overplaying him while still developing.
Hodgson is aware of this.
"We do have to take players' welfare into consideration," Hodgson said. "There is going to be a situation where players suffer from both physical and mental fatigue."
Those measured comments after the Estonia win displayed Hodgson's recognition of the burnout and injuries that can afflict players. Had Michael Owen's career been managed differently perhaps the former England striker might have produced more moments of brilliance as seen as the 1998 World Cup rather than spending the later years of his career in treatment rooms.
But Hodgson's bluntness in his pre-match television interview, disclosing Sterling's private fatigue fears, put the player's dedication to England under scrutiny before a ball had been kicked.
Viewed by the financially-stretched worker preparing for a dawn trip to work, Sterling could seem like a pampered player letting down his country. Which football-mad Englishman wouldn't take any chance to pull on the Three Lions jersey?
Former England striker Ian Wright recently suggested that players who dodged playing for England should be ordered to ring the parents of a soldier who had died on the battlefield.
But comparing athletes representing their country with sacrifices made by military personnel will always seem trite. Likewise, it's hackneyed contrasting the footballer training a few mornings a week and playing a couple of matches with a doctor saving lives or a manual worker. There can only be one "winner."
The current spotlight on concussion injuries is a reminder that athletes shouldn't be reckless with their bodies and potentially jeopardize their long-term health just because they struck it lucky in sport and fear a public backlash for missing a match.
"Excuse me for being human," Sterling said in a not-so-cryptic tweet overnight.
Sterling's mistake was expecting confidentiality from Hodgson. The coach should simply have portrayed Adam Lallana inclusion's in the starting lineup in the place of his Liverpool teammate as squad rotation.
"Sometimes to be secret is the best thing to do," former England and Liverpool player Jamie Redknapp said on Sky Sports television. "I don't understand why (Hodgson) has come out and got embroiled in it."
Hodgson, though, is renowned for his frankness.
Take one relaxed encounter in the days before Euro 2012. Asked a mundane question about the personal pride in coaching England in competitive games for the first time, Hodgson replied that the tournament could be "the most torrid of my career" while expressing a hope that the players hadn't "conned" him.
Football Association officials were equally anxious last month when Hodgson swore at a reporter who highlighted England's lack of shots in a friendly win over Norway, prompting back-page headlines about his outburst.
And just last week, the coach apologized to Wayne Rooney for questioning the captain's oratory skills.
"Everyone knows Wayne is not the sort of person with his Liverpool accent who is going to be able to stand up in front of a lecture room of people," Hodgson said.
Hodgson needs to apologize again — this time to Sterling.
While a coach being frank and candid is a counterpoint to the secrecy and cover-ups across football, Hodgson has to impose more self-control.
The affable and always-engaging Hodgson might seem duller in public, but the trust between coach and players won't be at risk.
Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris
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