England manager Gareth Southgate believes the message behind taking the knee before kick-off is being lost after supporters booed the gesture ahead of Wednesday’s friendly win over Austria.
After renditions of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ and the national anthems, there were audible jeers – which appeared to be coming from an entire end at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium – as the players took the knee, the first time an England side have made the anti-racism gesture in front of a home crowd.
It was soon drowned out by cheers among the near-7,000 crowd – but Southgate and his players will hope the immediate reaction does not follow the team throughout the upcoming European Championship.
Audible jeers were heard as England and Austria players took the knee before the friendly
Jude Bellingham and Tyrone Mings take the knee prior to kick-off on Wednesday night
England have a diverse squad that reflects society including match-winner Bukayo Saka, Tyrone Mings, Jude Bellingham, Jesse Lingard, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jadon Sancho.
Southgate felt the booing of the knee could be construed as a ‘criticism’ of those players and that the reason behind the stance has been misunderstood.
‘I did hear it,’ he said when asked about the immediate reaction from a large number of fans.
‘It’s not something on behalf of our black players that I wanted to hear because it feels as though it is a criticism of them.
Gareth Southgate claims the reason behind taking the knee has been misunderstood
‘I think we have got a situation where some people seem to think it is a political stand that they don’t agree with.
‘That’s not the reason the players are doing it. We are supporting each other.’
The taking of the knee started since football resumed last June following the Covid pandemic, as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered pace following the death of George Floyd.
Premier League players also donned the BLM slogan on their shirts after the 2019-20 campaign restarted, following on from global protests in support of the movement sparked by the death of Floyd while in the United States while in police custody last May.
But at the start of the 2020-21 season, the Premier League distanced itself from Black Lives Matter by replacing its logo with No Room for Racism on shirts.
Jack Grealish slammed the jeers after players took the knee, saying ‘we don’t want it in football’
The BLM movement in the UK had been criticised over accusations of anti-Semitism and calls to defund the police.
The Premier League released a statement at the end of last season, saying it did ‘not endorse any political organisation or movement, nor support any group that calls for violence or condones illegal activity’.
The statement added: ‘We are aware of the risk posed by groups that seek to hijack popular causes and campaigns to promote their own political views. These actions are entirely unwelcome and are rejected by the Premier League and all other professional football bodies, and they underline the importance of our sport coming together to declare a very clear position against prejudice.’
While BLM slogans were removed, the taking of the knee remained throughout the 2020-21 season.
But since fans started to return to stadiums after they were kept out due to the Covid pandemic, players had faced resistance with some supporters booing the taking of the knee before matches.
Fans at Wembley for the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Leicester booed before applause drowned out the protests. A similar sentiment was heard at Old Trafford for Manchester United’s game against Fulham on May 18.
Piers Morgan slammed the ‘supposed England fans’ who booed the team on Wednesday
And this was followed by a similar incident at the Riverside Stadium prior to England’s Euro warm-up friendly against Austria.
On Wednesday, the initial jeers were overtaken by a groundswell of support and, with other stadiums across England witnessing similar responses since the return of fans, Southgate wants to see the meaning behind the message reaffirmed.
‘I was pleased that was drowned out by the majority of the crowd but we can’t deny the fact that it happened,’ he added.
‘I think the most important thing for our players to know is that all their team-mates, all the staff are fully supportive.
‘I think the majority of people understand it, some people aren’t quite understanding the message and I suppose we are seeing that across a number of football grounds at the moment.’
Piers Morgan hit out at the fans at the Riverside Stadium who decided to jeer the players, claiming the England squad should walk off next time they boo.
This supporter said they were ‘glad fans booed’ the players taking the knee on Wednesday
Morgan wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning: ‘Disgusting to hear so many supposed England fans loudly boo a team with many black players for taking the knee to protest racial inequality, then loudly cheer one of those black players when he scored.
‘Next time these idiots boo, the players should walk off.’
Furthermore, midfielder Jack Grealish – who played a key part in England’s winning goal which Saka eventually converted – said none of the players were happy about it.
‘I think that will get talked about in the next few days,’ he told Sky Sports. ‘It’s a thing we don’t want in football in general and especially in our games.
However, some football fans on social media said they were ‘glad’ that the players were booed for taking the knee.
One wrote: ‘Glad fans booed. Months without a live game to go to and when you eventually do go you have to put up with a load of hypocritical millionaires kneeling beforehand. Get on with the game for goodness sake.’
Another said: ‘No one wants a lecture before the game. Stand up and get on with it.’
Fans at Wembley for the FA Cup final booed Chelsea and Leicester players taking the knee
England players are expected to continue taking the knee this summer during the European Championships – one of the most watched events in world football.
UEFA have strict rules regarding political statements but have allowed England players to take the knee during the Nations League and are unlikely to change their stance during the tournament.
Crystal Palace star Wilfried Zaha declared in February this year that he would stop taking the knee as he believed the protest was no longer sufficient.
‘I feel like taking a knee is degrading,’ he told the FT Business of Football conference at the time. ‘Growing up, my parents just let me know that I should just be proud to be black, no matter what, and I just think we should stand tall.
‘I think the meaning behind the whole thing is becoming something that we just do now. That’s not enough. I’m not going to take the knee.’
Wilfried Zaha has stopped taking the knee as he believes the protest is no longer sufficient