Southgate chooses to die on Henderson hill with pathetic, ‘logic-defying’ response to England boos

Matt Stead
Gareth Southgate embraces England substitute Jordan Henderson at Wembley
Jordan Henderson was booed at Wembley and Gareth Southgate was not happy

Gareth Southgate pretended not to “understand” why some England fans might have booed Jordan Henderson at Wembley. What a pathetic, disappointing response.


Gareth Southgate is either being wilfully obtuse or inadvertently dense over Jordan Henderson and it is difficult to say which is worse.

Of all the responses to a gentle question about “what he made” of the England captain being booed when substituted against Australia at Wembley because of “the Saudi thing”, it was clumsily insulting at best, consciously incendiary at worst and awkwardly revealing either way to say “I really don’t understand it”.

He knows full well the gravitas of the situation, the context and the circumstances which have led to this point. He understands it alright. And to pretend otherwise was cowardly.

Southgate only continued to dig the hole, listing Henderson’s international accolades – his 79 caps, his “commitment”, his “professionalism”, his status as a squad “role model” who has taken Jude Bellingham and others under his wing – before imploring people to “get behind this team” for the upcoming Italy match.

The problem? This has nothing to do with Henderson’s service to the national team or his contribution on the pitch. This is not about football. And Southgate absolutely knows that.

Rating the players from England 1-0 Australia: Weak Colwill debut, drab Henderson, Dunk great

‘I have never believed that we should just stick to football,’ Southgate once wrote in an open letter to England fans on the eve of Euro 2021; now it is his go-to defence for the hill upon which he has decided his reign must eventually die. The manager had vocally led the charge as the head of this socially aware, admirably-principled team for years but this response showed those words to be utterly hollow. Confronted with matters of human rights violations, the criminalisation of homosexuality and the restriction of free speech, Southgate clutched at the sport like a safety blanket and glared at anyone who was not distracted by Ollie Watkins scoring the only goal in an unconvincing friendly win.

To see Southgate squirm in the post-match press conference when asked whether Henderson promoting the Saudi Arabia 2034 World Cup bid might have been a factor in the fan reaction was to witness a man being caught trying to have his cake while eating it. He knew what the backlash would be even just to picking him – he just didn’t want his actions to have actual consequences.

In that same open letter published in June 2021, the England manager recognised how his ‘voice carries weight’, that he and his players ‘have a responsibility to the wider community’, that ‘our lads will be a big part of’ establishing ‘a much more tolerant and understanding society’. It is a grand message until it really, truly matters. It jars with everything Henderson has done from this summer onwards. Frankly, the Al-Ettifaq midfielder has made Southgate look an absolute fool with his actions and words. Yet still Southgate chucks them both in the firing line before feigning surprise at being riddled with bullets and blaming those shooting.

“Clearly I don’t understand it. I know what’s created it, and I know why it’s happened,” is the closest we get to the mask falling but right on cue Southgate scrambles his way back to those Three Lions on the shirt and the apparent fan duty to blindly and without question “help the team” again.

It is fair to point out that the booing a) was really not actually all that loud, a smattering at best, and b) likely caught both Southgate and Henderson off guard. It is even fairer to say a) it will probably be louder next time, and b) the explanation will have to be a damn sight better if this little social experiment continues.

In August, the former claimed not to know “why a player would receive an adverse reaction because of where he plays his football” – his argument of choice appears to be faked ignorance – while the latter shared his experience of Liverpool supporters in that excruciating Athletic interview by saying: “The negative reaction, I think a lot of it is on social media and in the media, which I don’t get involved with. When I’ve seen people around, they have all wished me all the very best.”

There can be no pretence now: until Southgate or Henderson provide some legitimate, honest answers they know exactly what to expect. This was never just going to go away and people were not about to simply forget everything. They might have hoped this would all blow over in a Mexican wave with Henderson’s first Wembley game since moving to Saudi Arabia being a kind Friday night friendly against Australia, but they laughably misread the room if so.

Neither manager nor player are stupid but this foolish and unhelpful stance makes them look as such. It would have been better for Southgate to acknowledge that people are angry and accept they feel let down. To say he respects their view but is entitled to his own. Even saying he knows Henderson and his famed values and beliefs better than anyone would have been an improvement. Pretending he “doesn’t understand” the fan reaction was pathetic. His words were the only thing that defied logic here; after the forward steps he has accompanied England on in many ways over the past seven years, they were reign-definingly disheartening.