Ben White saga has exposed Southgate and England staff failures after pathetic six-word insult

Matt Stead
Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa, Arsenal defender Ben White and England coach Steve Holland
Ben White excelled under Marcelo sodding Bielsa but apparently isn't interested enough in football

England was proudly held as a success in empathy and unity, but Ben White has helped prove Gareth Southgate and his team are no longer fit for purpose.


In December 2018, Gareth Southgate explained the most admirable and striking aspect of his coaching philosophy: understanding, compassion and unity.

“My approach would be to have empathy with people,” he said. “As a coach, you always have to be there to support the person. Improving them as a player becomes secondary to a degree. But if a player feels that you respect them and want to help them, they’re more likely to listen to you and follow you.”

Four years later, his trusted assistant suggested, mid-tournament, that a member of his World Cup squad ‘was not sufficiently interested in football’ because they could not answer a question to their specific satisfaction.

So much for ’empathy’ and ‘support’. Benjamin White requested to leave the England camp and has not made himself available for international selection since.

READ MOREEight players who rejected England before Benjamin White – and why they turned national team down

The report uncovering the issue states that, ‘at the heart of the problem appears to be a question of the respect accorded to the player,’ because Southgate’s ethos works both ways: if a player feels that you do not respect them and do not want to help them, they’re less likely to listen to you and follow you – to Qatar, to Germany, even just to Wembley.

It was a laughable, ludicrous accusation to level. The idea White is ‘not sufficiently interested in football’ is preposterous. He was released by Southampton at 16. He has played in League Two’s mid-table, fought in a League One promotion battle and been ever-present in a Championship-winning campaign under one of the most physically demanding coaches in history. He is a crucial component of one of the best club teams in world football, mastering a hybrid role which requires remarkable concentration and dedication. He was deemed worthy enough for England to call him up.

England defender Ben White touches his chin
Ben White sits on the England bench

Marcelo Bielsa, who an apparently insufficiently interested White said helped him learn “the minor things, like how the ball spins when you pass it, how you’re passing it, why you’re passing it,” considered him “an excellent professional”. Mikel Arteta sees him as “a top professional with a winning mentality, and one of the guys who leads by example every day”. The Manchester United-bound Dan Ashworth once said White was “such a good professional”, in part because of his low maintenance and capacity for learning. He bears the sacrifices and scars of any other elite player and to question that is insulting.

There is a common thread running through those White has worked with; the England national team is the glaring exception to a rule of praise and acclaim for someone who plays and trains with absolute commitment to match his undoubted quality.

Steve Holland is not the first to wilfully misinterpret something which was said three years ago and has been laboriously explained since, but it is disheartening to see a set-up justifiably hailed for its focus on togetherness, solidarity and awareness fall into those tired old traps.

It was back in October 2021 when White first publicly acknowledged how he “didn’t ever watch football when I was younger” and “I still don’t now”. He added in the same interview that he “just loved the game”, “was always playing it” as a child and would “come in every day giving 100 per cent” in games, training and preparation before otherwise trying to switch off from how “intense” it all was, but the die had been cast and White was yet another preening footballer taking his privileged position for granted, rather than someone approaching his job with the healthiest possible outlook.

That infantile reaction was to be expected from rival supporters hoping to score points on social media, but England’s assistant manager espousing the same nonsense – in front of his teammates – is yet another dent in this coaching team’s previously impervious armour. It is a failure in man-management from a regime who once harnessed that so brilliantly as their main strength.

Southgate making matters worse by insisting White’s self-imposed exile was not because of any “issues” with Holland only underlined how this England management team is no longer fit for purpose. As desperate as they are to die on their Jordan Henderson hill, they cannot accept that a player would rather switch off from the otherwise non-stop nature football in his free time and that is embarrassing.

The England manager did at least say that he “has to respect” White’s decision. It’s a damn shame – and very much to the national team’s detriment – that they couldn’t respect the player himself.

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