Jordan Henderson has said fans booing England’s players for taking the knee achieves nothing and proves the fight against racism is far from over.
The row over the anti-racism action has threatened, in England, to overshadow the start of Euro 2020 and has led to Gareth Southgate’s players finding themselves on the end of an angry reaction from a section of supporters before games.
There were jeers before England faced Austria and Romania in recent friendlies at the Riverside Stadium and there are fears the dispute will rumble on when Southgate’s side meet Croatia in their Group D opener at Wembley on Sunday.
Yet the backlash will not stop England taking the knee. Southgate made his case eloquently last weekend, and in an article published on Tuesday made clear his determination to keep using his position to raise awareness of society’s ills. Henderson has echoed his manager’s sentiments by saying his teammates are more determined than ever to take the lead in the fight against discrimination.
“I think it shows that if there’s still people booing because we’re standing together against racism, then there really still is a problem and we’ve still got to fight it and stand together,” England’s vice-captain said. “It shows even more that we have to keep going, keep fighting it. From our side, it’s about being together and doing what we think is right.”
Henderson, who insisted he would be fit to face Croatia after a groin injury, was asked whether booing players achieved anything. “It doesn’t,” he said. “We’ve made it very clear that we all stand together against racism. That’s the reason that we continue to take the knee.
“The lads are starting to feel like they don’t really want to talk about it any more. Of course, everyone knows we stand together and you’ll see that in taking the knee, but we want to get on with the football and concentrate on that. That’s our focus.”
The debate has attracted attention from outside football. Boris Johnson has refused to condemn those who booed the knee before the Austria and Romania games, and there have been controversial comments from Conservative MPs and right-wing commentators.
The concern for England is whether the fuss distracts them in trying to become European champions. There is a desire within the camp to focus on events on the pitch and Tyrone Mings summed up the mood by saying he does not have a message for the fans who will be at Wembley.
However Mings, who could start in defence against Croatia, added that he would always fight for racial equality and the Aston Villa player hopes those on the other side of the fence are not lost causes. “You would like to hope not,” the centre-back said. “You would hope by educating these people, some day they will understand why it is that we are taking a knee. But four or five days before a major tournament, I don’t want to get caught up on whether or not we should.”
Raheem Sterling, one of the most influential figures in the fight against racism, also spoke about against the booing. “It’s something I didn’t even really want to speak on,” the Manchester City forward told TalkSport. “But if you can’t understand the meaning behind it and the cause behind it then it’s a real disappointment.”
Southgate aimed to inspire his squad by showing a video on Tuesday about England’s past glories. “It was about the legacy, about the past players and how important they were,” the Luke Shaw said. “At the end of the video there was a little bit about us. You got a lot of confidence from watching. I looked around the whole group and felt like everyone had that same feeling.”
In a self-penned article for the Players’ Tribune, Southgate spoke with passion about his role and responsibility. “I have never believed that we should just stick to football. I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.”
The manager voiced his concerns over racist abuse on social media: “Unfortunately for those people that engage in that kind of behaviour, I have some bad news. You’re on the losing side. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”
Southgate cited his grandfather’s service in the military in the second world war in defence of his England team. “The idea of representing ‘Queen and country’ has always been important to me. We do pageantry so well in Britain, and, growing up, things like the Queen’s silver jubilee and royal weddings had an impact on me … My granddad’s values were instilled in me from a young age and I couldn’t help but think of him when I lined up to sing the national anthem before my first international caps.
“My belief is that everyone has that pride. And that includes the players. What is sometimes forgotten is just how much it means to the players.”