“I don’t understand the booing but that seems to be the landscape,” Gareth Southgate said. “I have no idea how that is expected to help him.”
That was Southgate after his first match as England manager in 2016. The player who had been booed was Wayne Rooney, England’s most-capped outfield player and the man who had broken their goalscoring record 12 months previously.
Seven years on and Southgate, in charge for the 88th time, was using almost exactly the same words of exasperation when asked about the booing of Jordan Henderson during Friday’s 1-0 win over Australia.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “How is that going to help him or the team?”
Henderson is in good company. Ashley Cole is arguably England’s best left-back of all time, but he was booed by England fans. John Barnes is one of the most gifted wingers to pull on an England shirt. Booed. John Terry? Frank Lampard? Booed.
“It’s part of playing for England, I suppose,” Lampard said. Perhaps it is or is it just a natural part of the England soundtrack, so we should not make such a big deal out of it? Jude Bellingham will probably be booed one day.
But it feels like such a big deal. In the stadium, it is awkward, it is cringe-worthy, it is just not nice. And it is a statement. People are audibly telling you they do not like you, or they think you are rubbish. It must be horrendous and humiliating.
When Henderson’s number went up, you knew it was coming. The Al Ettifaq midfielder, captain for the game, probably expected it — there had been a mixed reaction to his name being read out before kick-off and there were a few fans who booed his every touch in the early stages.
— Channel 4 Sport (@C4Sport) October 13, 2023
England players have been booed for a variety of reasons in the past. Cole got it because of allegations about his private life. Rooney was getting past his best (and by then, playing below-par in midfield) and it probably did not help that England were at a low ebb, post-Iceland and Sam Allardyce. Peter Crouch was basically booed because people thought he was not good enough.
With Henderson, it is more nuanced. It is not just because he now plays in Saudi Arabia (Australia’s Craig Goodwin moved to Al-Wehda in the summer but there were no boos from the away end). It is not just because people think he has abandoned his moral principles as an LGBTQ+ ally. And it is not just because they just think he is undeserving of a place in the England side. It is all of those things.
Short of sitting someone down and asking them why they choose to boo Henderson, you suspect the Saudi move and all that has come with it is being used as a stick to beat an unpopular player with. It does not have to be complicated — just ask Harry Maguire.
It does not help Henderson that most of the good things he does — and the reasons Southgate keeps picking him — are not that obvious. He is not exactly a highlights player, nor is he a regular goalscorer or chance creator. He is a ticker-alonger. And the older he gets, the less good he is at the ticking things along malarkey.
He is clearly a positive influence on the dressing room (Southgate pointed out that Henderson has taken Bellingham under his wing). If he helps squad unity and gets the best from others, then as long as England are doing well and winning matches and Henderson is not taking the place of anyone who can offer more, then what is the problem? Conor Coady played a similar role during the last two tournaments — and he never made it off the bench at Euro 2020 or last year’s World Cup.
But therein lies part of the story — there are not that many good England central midfielders knocking on the door. Henderson is not the player he once was, that is why Jurgen Klopp was willing to let him leave Liverpool, but when you see Kalvin Phillips still being picked despite barely kicking a ball for Manchester City you see a lack of alternatives.
Manchester City’s Rico Lewis may come through this season but it is early days for the 18-year-old. You can make a case for James Ward-Prowse at West Ham United but it would not be a compelling one. Henderson stays for now, even though his time in the first XI is surely over, given where he now plies his trade, given his waning powers at the age of 33. Trent Alexander-Arnold furthered his claims for a midfield spot with another fine performance, his third in a row after those impressive displays in June against Malta and North Macedonia (although given Southgate’s penchant for a second sturdy presence in midfield, the England manager would probably prefer that Phillips leaves City on loan in January).
“He knitted and held things together., Southgate said of Henderson. “We didn’t have as many physically strong players on the pitch, it was the team we needed to pick to preserve people, to give players opportunities.
“You need leadership, we didn’t have a lot of caps on the field so Hendo was an influence before and during the game, he was important and helped other players get through the game.”
He then went into full sarcasm mode when asked if Henderson’s support for Saudi’s 2034 World Cup bid was part of the reason behind the booing.
“What has that got to do with supporting a guy that’s wearing an England shirt?” Southgate said. “I don’t really know where we’re heading with everything. I’m hugely impressed with the impeccable values and decisions that everybody in this country is making then.”
Behind Saudi Arabia’s growing influence…
This was not a “people pay good money to be here and are entitled to their opinion” stance and, if people genuinely did boo Henderson because of his descent from rainbow armband-wearing LGBTQ+ champion to promoter of Saudi Arabia’s World Cup bid, then Southgate was wide of the mark. But this did not feel like Wembley was making a loud and proud stand on LGBTQ+ rights. It felt like they were booing because they do not like Henderson being picked for England anymore based on his football ability. Probably. Yes, it is nuanced.
What is less complicated is that Henderson just did not impress against a midfield containing players from St Mirren in Scotland and German second-tier side St Pauli, a month after he was England’s weakest midfielder against Ukraine.
Southgate dropped Rooney soon after he had been booed. The case for him now doing the same to Henderson is mounting, but a few dissenting voices will not influence the England manager, who will have heard the name of former boo-boy Maguire being sung repeatedly on Friday night. Southgate probably did not understand that either.
Football crowds are nothing if not unpredictable.
(Top photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)