Gareth Southgate would love his players to unite the nation during the Euros.
But his message to those fans who won’t support England’s players if they continue to take the knee – and the Tory MPs who have threatened to turn their backs on the Three Lions – is that they won’t be missed.
During England’s exciting march to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 Southgate saw how the beautiful game helped unite a country torn apart by Brexit.
He knows it’s a big ask for his team to do the same again – but he is adamant that his players are right to use their worldwide exposure this summer to take a stand against racism.
Southgate said: “We’ve got to allow this group of players – which in the main is a very young group – to enjoy their football, enjoy what they’re doing and love the experience.
“But if we can play well and excite people and unite people, then that would be a great bonus.
“I don’t really want to burden this group with anything other than playing well and focusing on that.
“If the unintended consequence is that we have a positive impact on the country then that’s great.
“But I don’t think it’s entirely our responsibility to do that. There are other people who have the real responsibility in that area.
“But we do know the power of a successful run, that when we play well, how uplifting that can be for everybody.
“We really hope we can do that again.”
England return to the Riverside Stadium today to face Romania in their final warm-up game, four days after some fans jeered them there for taking the knee against Austria.
Tory MP Lee Anderson has said he will not watch England during the Euros if Southgate’s players continue to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Anderson’s view has gained traction within his party, with Brendan Clarke-Smith calling England’s stance an “empty gesture” and Andrew Bridgen claiming the players have been “brainwashed”.
“We will be very sorry to see them go,” said Southgate when asked about the criticism of his players from the Conservative backbenches.
“People are choosing to create the narrative that they want and it’s pointless us wasting our energy if they aren’t prepared to take part in change, look for progress.
“The heartening thing for me is that I think the majority of the country are –we’re never going to change everybody, but we know that from one generation to the next things improve.
“And that’s got to be our aim – to make it better for our children and make it better for our grandchildren.
“Eventually we’ll get to a point where people are further ahead than we are now. It feels painstaking at the moment, but that’s the reality.”
Southgate refused to condemn as racist those fans who jeered his players on Wednesday night.
But he is fearful of the impact further jeers from the stand could have on his team during the Euros.
Southgate said: “I am not educated enough or clear enough to know whether that [booing] in itself would be racism.
“All I can say is that I didn’t like it. I felt immediately concerned for the players at that moment and how they might react because we were 10 seconds from the kick-off and they are there in an England shirt.
“For some of the players it was the first time they had started a game, so I had a lot of concern for them.
“Fortunately they were able to respond. I think they took energy from the response of the majority of the fans who drowned out the noise.
“I know they were confused by what they had been through, rather than disheartened.
“But I could have understood if their emotions had been different.”