Southgate’s socially conscious England players forge fresh links with fans

Behind England’s success lies a credible social conscience which has seen squad members saluted for taking the knee against racism, making a stand on donating to the NHS, and taking the fight for free school means to Downing Street.

Manager Gareth Southgate said as much on the eve of the tournament in an open letter to fans.

“It’s their (the players’) duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate,” he wrote.

England v Germany – UEFA Euro 2020 – Round of 16 – Wembley Stadium
England’s Raheem Sterling, a Black Lives Matter campaigner, celebrates scoring against Germany at Euro 2020 (Mike Egerton/PA)

The former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough player has been unapologetic in his players taking a moral stance on issues affecting the communities his squad members are from, and who they represent.

Southgate appeared weary when, on the eve of the Euros, he insisted his team would continue to take the knee as a gesture against racism and inequality at kick-offs, despite being jeered by sections of England fans.

“We’ve accepted that (jeering), as a group,” Southgate said after a pre-Euros warm-up match against Romania last month.

England v Romania – International Friendly – Riverside Stadium
England’s Jack Grealish and Kalvin Phillips take a knee before the international friendly match against Romania last month (Lee Smith/PA)

“It isn’t going to stop what we are doing and what we believe. It certainly isn’t going to stop my support for our players and our staff.

“That’s it, we are going to have to live with that.”

His comments came even as Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to condemn those booing and jeering the gesture.

Even the day after the Romania game, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “He (Mr Johnson) fully respects the right of those who do choose to peacefully protest to make their feelings known.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel branded the act of footballers taking the knee as “gesture politics”.

Bulgaria v England – UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying – Group A – Vasil Levski National Stadium
Match referee Ivan Bebek (left) speaks to England manager Gareth Southgate and Tyrone Mings over racist chants from fans during the Euro 2020 qualifying match in Bulgaria (Nick Potts/PA)

That Aston Villa defender Tyrone Mings felt the courage to call out racist abuse from Bulgarian supporters on his international debut in October 2019 underlines the moral fortitude at the core of Southgate’s squad.

Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United forward, successfully lobbied the Government into a U-turn over its free school meals policy in England during the first coronavirus lockdown, ensuring children in need would receive food over the summer.

Rashford, still only 23, continues to speak to the Government about issues such as child poverty and literacy.

President Obama in conversation with Marcus Rashford
Former US president Barack Obama (left) and Marcus Rashford had a conversation on Zoom earlier this year discussing the power young people can have to make change in society (Penguin Random House/PA)

Raheem Sterling, the Manchester City forward who has scored three times for England at the Euros so far, has already used his profile to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and announced plans to launch a foundation aimed at helping disadvantaged young people.

And in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, it was Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool captain and England midfielder, who helped mastermind a charitable fund, Players Together, which supported NHS good causes to support staff and patients.

Henderson, Rashford and Sterling are among the footballers to have been awarded MBEs for their community spirited endeavours, rooted in personal experience.

England Training – St George’s Park – Tuesday July 6th
England’s Jordan Henderson has been credited with helping raise money from footballers for the NHS (Martin Rickett/PA)

Rashford’s free school meals campaign was inspired by his own experiences in a single-parent, low-income household.

Sterling credits his older sister for taking him on three buses to football training in west London every day as a child while his mother – widowed when his father was murdered – was working in cleaning jobs to fund her education.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

Henderson has family members who work for the NHS, who cared for his father while he was undergoing cancer treatment.

There are plenty of other personal stories within the England camp.

On Wednesday evening, a clip of Chelsea and England midfielder Mason Mount seeking out a young girl and handing her his shirt went viral.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

It was one of many such gestures that goes on across sporting venues every week – yet it was praised for encapsulating the genuine link between players and fans.

The broadcaster June Sarpong, speaking while receiving an OBE on Thursday, described the England squad as “young men who just are examples for the next generation – they are stand-up guys”.

And it is that united social conscience – to actually be positive role models, as opposed to just magnificent football players – that is what appears to set this England squad apart from others.