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Champions League

How Jordan Henderson and England’s ‘tribal elders’ made them a force | England

It is the clip that does not fail to draw a smile from England supporters. Jordan Henderson is stripped and ready to come on as a late substitute against Germany but then he sees the move develop; his pulse quickens, his eyes widen. If Jack Grealish can cross for Harry Kane …

“Go on,” Henderson shouts. “Go on. Go on H.” Out of shot, Grealish makes the cross, Kane scores, England are 2-0 up, en route to the Euro 2020 quarter‑finals and Henderson tears off, arms up in celebration, before rushing back to jump into an embrace with Gareth Southgate.

The roles were reversed to glorious effect on Saturday night in Rome. Henderson was on the field this time, as a 57th-minute substitute for Declan Rice and, when he rose to head England’s final goal of the 4-0 thrashing of Ukraine – his first at this level on the occasion of his 62nd cap – he was the focal point of the frenzied celebrations.

“I loved some of the reaction on the bench because you could see the younger players were totally delighted for Hendo,” Southgate said. “There’s a lovely moment with Jude Bellingham [when they embrace]. Conor Coady was the first one off the bench, jumping in the air, replicating Hendo’s header. I could see him as I was watching the video back.”

This is what the holy grail of tournament management looks like: players on the fringes making contributions, those off the pitch happy for them, fully supportive, prioritising the collective. If a team at these finals is only as strong as the attitude of its 26th squad member, England are in good shape for the semi-final against Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday.

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It starts with Southgate and how he has stood by his core players – the two Harrys, Maguire and Kane, Raheem Sterling and Henderson; the “tribal elders”, as the manager referred to them on Sunday.

Remember Maguire’s previous meeting with Denmark at Wembley? It was the 1-0 Nations League defeat last October when he was sent off after 31 minutes to cap a miserable start to the season, which had kicked off with the notorious Mykonos episode. Southgate stood by him, getting in touch to reassure him, just as he did during the centre-half’s more recent ankle injury layoff. Maguire has been a tower of strength since his return to the team in the final group-phase game against the Czech Republic.

The pattern has been the same with Kane and Sterling, Southgate taking the unusual step to confirm the former’s starting place for the Czech tie 48 hours before kick-off despite his struggle to find form at this tournament. Sterling endured a difficult final three months of the domestic season at Manchester City but Southgate’s belief in him did not waver. Kane has now found his touch, starring with two goals against Ukraine, while Sterling has been England’s best player at the finals.

Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane celebrate the captain scoring the third goal against Ukraine
Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane have repaid Gareth Southgate’s faith with three goals each at Euro 2020. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/Shutterstock

Henderson’s situation has been slightly different and to listen to Southgate on Sunday was to conclude that the Liverpool captain was never going to be able to play a full part at the tournament, having undergone groin surgery at the end of February. Yet it only seemed to shine an even more favourable light on what he has brought to the squad; how a player that has lifted the Champions League has done everything to support Rice, Kalvin Phillips, Bellingham and all the rest.

“Hendo has really accepted that this was going to be a difficult and different challenge but he’s totally thrown himself into it,” Southgate said. “When I talked to him a few weeks ahead of the first training camp, we talked through this scenario and he was adamant he just wanted to be a part of it and contribute in any way he could.

“Within any team there’s a core group that drive the team and I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of that. Team building is about so much more than talent. It’s relationships and the strength of those bonds.”

Southgate reflected on the length of the journey that he has been on with some of his squad, with Kane a substitute in his first game as the England Under-21s manager in September 2013 against Moldova, while John Stones and Luke Shaw were the starting full-backs.

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“The relationships have been forming over a long, long period of time,” Southgate said, and they have done so on the grim occasions as well as the good. Those torrid nights, for example, in Montenegro and Bulgaria when the team’s black players were racially abused from the stands.

“You can put scenarios in … we went to the army camp [for a team‑bonding exercise] and we did stuff which definitely helped. But the reality is it is going through the games together, going through those real-life experiences together and there’s no shortcut to that.”

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It is not nirvana. There were 10 players who did not feature against Ukraine and, in Southgate’s words, that “doesn’t mean everybody in the camp is thrilled and happy. As much as they are giving themselves to the team, you’re never going to have everybody in a perfect individual place and feeling fulfilled. But I think they recognise what has been built.”

Perhaps it was why Southgate was so keen in the immediate aftermath of victory to pay tribute to Coady and Ben Chilwell, to Sam Johnstone and Aaron Ramsdale, the “ones making this team successful”.

Leading from the front, setting the tone for the younger generation, have been Maguire and Kane, Sterling and Henderson, with one reflection of their importance being that they have scored all eight of the team’s goals between them. It is far from the only one.

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