Jordan Henderson played his first bit of competitive football since February at the weekend

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Jordan Henderson says it will show that England still has a racism problem if players are booed when they take a knee at Wembley Stadium on Sunday before their opening Euro 2020 group game against Croatia.

The England vice-captain insisted it “doesn’t help” the team for a section of the supporters to react in that way. It comes as Gareth Southgate again defended the right of his squad to express their opinions and insisted that he has “never believed that we should just stick to football”.

There is widespread concern after fans booed when the players took the knee in the two warm-up games in Middlesbrough that there will be a similar reaction when the tournament begins.

Some supporters jeer apparently because of the perceived political connotations affiliated with the Black Lives Matter Movement but Southgate and the players insist their use of the gesture is clearly an act of solidarity against racism and the broader fight against inequality.

Henderson was even more forthright.

"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 on that,” he 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 – and that’s what we feel is right."

England players have continued to take the knee before games, despite booing from fans

Credit: The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Asked whether the booing does not help the players the 30-year-old midfielder added: "No it doesn’t. I think, as players, we’ve made it very clear that we all stand together against racism. That’s the reason that we continue to take the knee, and have done over the last few weeks. I think the lads are starting to feel like they don’t really want to talk about it anymore. 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."

In a letter to the England fans for The Players Tribune, Southgate declared that as the manager he has a “responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players” who he said were “role models” and accepted that.

Southgate held a meeting with the players after last Wednesday’s jeering in which they discussed whether they would carry on taking the knee. It was decided they would do so. “It’s their 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,” Southgate wrote.

“This is a special group [of players]. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves. Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people. I have never believed that we should just stick to football.”

Southgate insisted that, despite the problems over taking a knee, the players were “closer to the supporters than they have been for decades”. He added: “Despite the polarisation we see in society, these lads are on the same wavelength as you on many issues.” 

Henderson’s view was echoed by team-mate Tyrone Mings. “I think we have said all that we can say as players and whether that message gets through to the minority or not is something we should not ever give up on,” the defender said.

Mings, who attended a Black Lives Matter protest last year, said he did not believe it was impossible to change the opinions of some fans: “You would like to hope not. You would hope by educating these people, some day they will understand why it is that we are taking a knee.”

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There have been concerns that the issue, and the fans booing, will distract the players during the tournament and damage their chances of winning it but Mings insisted this would not be the case. “I will speak about it until the day that I pass away,” he said. “I am a strong advocate for trying to educate people who might not understand issues they have been subjected to.”

Southgate has already said the players are “sick of talking about the consequences” and it was a view endorsed by Raheem Sterling. “If you can’t understand the meaning behind it and the cause behind it, then it’s a real disappointment to see that,” he said. "But I don’t really even want to go into it too much.”

Whether players continue to take the knee next season remains to be seen with newly-promoted Brentford set to end the collective approach in the Premier League. The club’s players stopped performing the gesture in February after stating it no longer has an impact and are highly likely to continue with that approach in the new campaign.

Henderson says Roy Keane was right – and he has a few card tricks up his sleeve

Jordan Henderson breaks into the broadest of smiles when Roy Keane’s name is mentioned. “Yeah and the card tricks he was on about,” the England vice-captain says. “I’ve got a few of them up my sleeve.”

Keane, who gave Henderson his debut as a player when he was Sunderland manager 13 years ago, nevertheless did not hold back in his criticism of the midfielder’s involvement in the England squad when he has had not played a competitive game since undergoing groin surgery in February.

“I think it’s a huge distraction – he’s clearly not fit,” Keane declared in his role as an ITV pundit before Henderson played the second-half of the final warm-up friendly against Romania on Sunday having pulled out of the previous game after feeling discomfort.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say they want him around the place. For what?” Keane added. “Does he do card tricks? Does he have a sing-song? Does he do quizzes in the evening? What does he do?”

Roy Keane on Jordan Henderson… 😬

“Clearly Jordan’s not fit – I don’t think he should be involved… I’ve heard people say they want him around the place – for what? Does he do card tricks? Does he have a sing song? Does he do quizzes in the evenings?” pic.twitter.com/YhYaXxg8FX

— ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 6, 2021

Gareth Southgate is certainly clear about Henderson’s value – on the pitch as well as off it – and has decided it is a gamble worth taking to include the 30-year-old in his 26-man squad. As for Henderson? He is adamant that he is fully fit to start against Croatia.

"Listen, as a player you want to play and I’m not coming here just to be around the camp like Roy was saying,” Henderson says. "I want to come here and I want to contribute in the games. How much of that is not really down to me, it’s up to the manager to make a decision. But whenever I’m called upon, I’ll be ready.”

And as for Keane’s withering assessment? "To be fair to Roy, he can say what he wants about me. He gave me my debut and I wouldn’t be here without him giving me that,” Henderson says. “I found it quite funny, actually.”

At the same time he is also prepared to correct his former manager. “We know a little bit more detail, I know more detail [about his injury] and so does the manager [Southgate], which Roy may not,” Henderson explains. "But in terms of stuff like that, everyone’s going to have an opinion, everybody’s going to think they know better than everybody else.

"But, for me, all my focus has been on the last couple of months and working as hard as I possibly can to be in a position where I can contribute in the tournament and I’m very thankful I’m in that position now."

Henderson’s 45 minutes against Romania came as a relief especially as he has not suffered any reaction afterwards. Although he has not played since damaging his groin in the Merseyside derby Henderson says he has been training “for a long, long time” as he works his way back.

"I’m fit,” he insists. “You probably wouldn’t know, but I’ve trained for a long time. It’s a little bit different training on your own instead of team training, which I managed to do towards the back end of the season with Liverpool.

“It’s a big step up but I’ve done that over the last few weeks. I’ve played minutes in the game [on Sunday]. Ideally, yes, you’d probably want to play a few games more but I think in the game I felt fine.

“Obviously it was a friendly and it’ll be another step up in tournament football. But that’s down to me to show in training how physically ready I am and then it’s up to the manager to make the decision.”

The concern over Henderson, as with Harry Maguire who is even further back in his return from injury, has been part of England’s disrupted preparations for this tournament which has also included having 11 players involved in the European club cup finals and, therefore, meeting up late.

It is certainly very different from England’s relatively smooth build up to the last World Cup. “2018 that was us [Liverpool] in the [Champions League] final so there were a couple of us, but this time there’s been a lot more with [Manchester] United, Chelsea and [Manchester] City players meeting up and not being able to take part in the friendly games before the tournament. That’s not been ideal. Maybe a couple of injuries as well,” Henderson says. “But now it’s a big week to prepare for that first game when everyone’s here together and hopefully we can do that over the next few days.”

That first game is, of course, against the nation that beat England in the semi-finals three years ago. “We maybe owe them from last time but we don’t need any extra motivation to be honest, we’re going into a European Championship where we want to be successful and the first game we know is crucial. It’s a big game in itself,” Henderson says.

He insists he is “going into the tournament in a good place” although there was the chastening experience of missing a penalty against the Romanians when team-mate Dominic Calvert-Lewin was the nominated taker which earned a public rebuke from Southgate.

It was the first penalty, in fact, that Henderson had taken since missing in the shoot-out against Colombia in the last-16 tie in the 2018 World Cup which, thankfully, England won.

Was he trying to put that experience to bed? “Possibly. It’s a double-whammy, isn’t it?” Henderson says having missed and, surprisingly, he is yet to score for England despite earning 59 caps. Not that he is fazed.

“It [scoring] is not a big focus of mine to do that, the biggest focus for me is to contribute in winning games,” Henderson says. “Of course it would be nice to score. Hopefully I’m just saving that for another time.”