OLIVER HOLT: Southgate sends a message that England won't be silenced

The day after England beat in the quarter-finals of Euro 96, Stuart Pearce, who had celebrated scoring in the penalty shootout with a show of emotion that became the symbol of the tournament, decided that he wanted to spend some of that Sunday watching a Sex Pistols concert at Finsbury Park. 

He used his best pal, , as cover to try to get the idea past Terry Venables.

‘I said I’d be back by 9pm,’ recalled punk fan Pearce of his conversation with the then England manager.‘He looked a little unsure. I quickly added that Gareth would be coming with me. That swung it. Terry knew that if Gareth was coming, we wouldn’t get into any trouble. He probably thought we were going to see Val Doonican. I think it was the first gig Gareth had ever been to.’

Gareth Southgate will lead his England side out at Euro 2020 against Croatia on Sunday

The Three Lions manager (second left) has come a long way since his England Euro 96 days

The Three Lions manager (second left) has come a long way since his England Euro 96 days 

Back then, Southgate was viewed as the Cardigan Kid. He was Mr Safe. He could be relied upon not to cause controversy either on or off the pitch.He was the player you sent out to the press conference to douse the flames. Not any more. 

As his talented young England team head into their opening game of Euro 2020 against Croatia on Sunday, the man who is leading them from the front stands for an awful lot more than just being nice.

England’s players are in the middle of a conflagration about taking the knee before games and Southgate has strode into it without a backwards glance.A couple of decades ago, the England manager said he was a conformist, not a rebel. That line has been blurred now and it is hard not to think Southgate is an even better leader for it.

The 50-year-old England manager is leading his country both on and off the pitch this summer

The 50-year-old England manager is leading his country both on and off the pitch this summer 

He has not tried to be pragmatic or sought compromise as the players have asked for the right to continue their protest about racial inequality, injustice and discrimination. Instead, despite loud hostility from some England fans, Southgate backed the players to the hilt.

In the process, he and the players sent out an important message that can only benefit them during a tournament that has been eagerly anticipated for so long: they will not be cowed by opposition, they will not be deflected by the deliberate and repeated misrepresentation of their message by others, they will not be bullied, they will not be silenced, they will stick together and they will remain defiant.If they harness that togetherness on the pitch, too, who knows how far they can go.

It will not be easy to match the achievements of three years ago when Southgate led England to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia.

England have assembled an exciting young side that is one of the favourites to win Euro 2020

England have assembled an exciting young side that is one of the favourites to win Euro 2020

France are hot favourites because they have class all over the pitch and the devastating brilliance of N’Golo Kante and Kylian Mbappe at their core. 

Portugal, the holders, look strong again. Italy impressed against Turkey on Friday night and are on a long unbeaten run. Germany are getting their act together.Belgium may be the best of all of them.

But England have youth and optimism on their side. And they have a streak of defiance in their ranks that will only have been strengthened by hearing the boos rain down from the stands when they took the knee before recent friendlies in Middlesbrough.Usually, they rely on criticism from the media to help them build a siege mentality. This time, some of England’s fans are doing it instead. It might yet be a gift.

So Southgate and his players have scored one priceless victory before England have even kicked a ball.The manager has built a culture in the squad where his players think for themselves and speak for themselves and are not afraid of offending sponsors by adopting what some obviously consider a controversial stance. England’s boo-boys buy sneakers, too, but there are more important things at stake here.

Among the squad are exciting youngsters such as Phil Foden (middle) and Jack Grealish (right)

Among the squad are exciting youngsters such as Phil Foden (middle) and Jack Grealish (right)

But England are involved in a national row over taking the knee having been booed in the past

But England are involved in a national row over taking the knee having been booed in the past

Some have said they felt taking the knee had lost its impact and some teams will not do it during the Euros.Scotland, for instance, have adopted a more pragmatic approach to it. But the refusal of the England players to abandon it and la-arirang.com the way they have been treated by their own supporters as a result has made it hugely relevant as a symbol of protest again.

Some things are bigger than the game and however England fare at this tournament, the courage of their stance will be one of the lasting images of these Euros.Many have longed for years for England players to take more responsibility, to stand up for what they believe in, to use their influence for good. Now that they are doing it, they should be applauded, not booed.

Why should England players who have been racially abused by local fans in Montenegro and Bulgaria and who are routinely subjected to racist insults on social media, be told how to register their protest?Why should they be cowed into submission by fans telling them how they should feel and how they should act?

England's players were subjected to vile racist abuse during a qualifier in Bulgaria in 2019

England’s players were subjected to vile racist abuse during a qualifier in Bulgaria in 2019

Why should the white players who are acting in solidarity with their team-mates be told to turn their backs on them?

Why should their manager betray them? What exactly would that achieve, apart from a desperately divided squad? We can probably all agree that booing players who have said time and time and time again that all they are doing is advocating racial equality is not a good look.

If it happened in Serbia or Bulgaria, we would be shaking our heads in despair.

‘I have never believed that we should just stick to football,’ Southgate wrote in his recent essay, Dear England, for The Players’ Tribune.‘It’s the players’ 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. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.’

The days when people told sports stars to ‘shut up and dribble’ are over.

England players like Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson — the last two were awarded MBEs in the Queen’s Birthday Honours on Friday — have already made significant contributions to social improvement in this country. Many other footballers have charitable foundations that are doing good work.

More will follow.

England's players have been doing their work off the pitch, with Jordan Henderson (left) and Raheem Sterling (right) awarded MBEs this week

England’s players have been doing their work off the pitch, with Jordan Henderson (left) and Www.Bonkersforhonkers.com Raheem Sterling (right) awarded MBEs this week

And yet instead of uniting the country at the start of a tournament that was supposed to be a giant celebration after the restrictions and miseries of the coronavirus crisis, the sight of England players taking the knee has divided us.Where many see courage and progress in the gesture, others see only supplication. Where many see a symbol of hope for increasing diversity in our country, others fume about political correctness and ‘wokery’.

Each side is mystified and infuriated by the stance of the other and so Southgate and his players are going into the tournament at the heart of a battle for English identity.The forces of traditionalism think they have lost the England football team to a new world that they dislike and distrust and they want it back. Taking the knee is where the battle lines have been drawn.

It might help if some myths are exploded.The theory, widely propagated, that our footballers are taking the knee because it is their idea of a tribute to the Marxist, revolutionary ideals of the Black Lives Matter movement is so absurd it is laugh-out-loud funny.

Marcus Rashford (right) also has an MBE after his work to integrate more free school meals

Marcus Rashford (right) also has an MBE after his work to integrate more free school meals

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I read one article yesterday that was based almost entirely on the premise our millionaire footballers are actually agitating for mercadogol.com.br the destruction of capitalism.Again, it was side-splittingly and unintentionally amusing. And even though the FA released a statement on Saturday night stressing — yet again — that the players taking the knee is not aligned to a political organisation or flashlight toys for adults ideology, the deliberate misinterpretation of the action has taken a toll.

Why do it?

Why misrepresent a simple message? Because you are threatened by it, I suppose. Because you worry that the simple message is gaining public support and so you try to undermine it by portraying it as something it isn’t. But the reality is that only the wilfully misguided can believe that England footballers are indulging in coded support for defunding the police.

Only the deluded can believe the England team is home to a secret coterie of Trotskyists.

If we can draw a line to any one moment or movement that encouraged England players to take the knee, it is that it was popularised five years ago as a gesture of peaceful protest against police brutality towards black Americans by the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and that is how it remains in the minds of many of the England players.

The FA released a statement over the weekend that taking the knee is not a political agenda

The FA released a statement over the weekend that taking the knee is not a political agenda

It is not a gesture of subservience or disrespect or revolution. It was actually suggested by former Green Beret Nate Boyer, who proposed it to Kaepernick.‘Kneeling’s never been seen as a disrespectful act,’ said Boyer. ‘People kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects.’

Whether his team are booed or not against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic for taking the knee, it is at least already clear that Southgate and his players will be on the right side of history for what they are doing.They have won that victory already. The second half of the Euros equation, flashlight toys for men (www.Bonkersforhonkers.com) of course, is that Southgate and the team have to justify themselves on the pitch as well.

The squad that he has picked is the second youngest in the tournament and it is brimming with attacking flair and ambition. It has ball-players and forwards in Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford who are thrilling to watch.The question mark against Southgate is how he uses them.

Southgate has several selection headaches ahead of Sunday's tie with Croatia at Wembley

Southgate has several selection headaches ahead of Sunday’s tie with Croatia at Wembley

The England manager still has plenty of doubters, those who say, in particular, that he is too cautious and that the England side have too often reverted to what amounts to a back five.For some, the ambivalence towards Southgate’s management philosophy has been distilled into his cautious attitude towards the squad’s most creative player, Grealish.

There is a lingering suspicion that Southgate does not quite trust Grealish when it comes to the biggest stage but in the England manager’s defence, there is also a recognition that he has to balance the temptation to go for an all-out deployment of the side’s attacking riches with the knowledge that England are vulnerable at the back.

That is why Southgate will be preoccupied with how best to protect his defence, particularly if England start against the Croats with a back four.Many will say he is reverting to type if he picks, say, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, or Rice and Jordan Henderson, in central midfield but that is because he cannot play fantasy football like the rest of us.

England are fluent and exciting in attack, but do have vulnerabilities to be wary of  in defence

England are fluent and exciting in attack, but do have vulnerabilities to be wary of  in defence

Maybe Southgate is a victim of the inverted snobbery that tends to value foreign coaches above our own but the fact is he has an outstanding record as the coach of the national team.He took England to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 28 years when the led the team in Russia and he guided them to the last four of the inaugural Nations League tournament in 2019.

In qualifying for these Euros, Southgate’s England topped their group with seven wins, one defeat and a goal difference of +31.In their four games at Wembley, they scored 21 goals. There is not really an awful lot more he and his players could have done.

None of that means they will necessarily survive a second round meeting with France or Portugal, which may be their fate.None of it means they will necessarily be able to get to the latter stages of the competition like Venables and a flash of the lightning cast his players did 25 years ago when their feats united the country.

But if they fail, they will at least know they stayed true to themselves by kneeling together and standing together for what they believed in. And if they succeed, how much sweeter it will taste for that.

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