England’s players and management have always presented a fierce united front under the leadership of Gareth Southgate in times of success and they did so again in condemnation of the jeering of Harry Maguire.
The usual caveats must apply – it was a minority of England supporters who twice booed the announcement of the Manchester United captain’s name before the 3-0 Wembley win against Ivory Coast and again when the ball was played back to him at the kick-off.
It was, however, a significant number and the reaction to the 29-year-old was audible enough to make it feel very uncomfortable inside Wembley.
Southgate’s response was that Maguire’s treatment was “an absolute joke” and such was the anger inside the England camp at the booing of a player seen as key to their runs to the 2018 World Cup semi-final and the Euro 2020 final that it crossed the divide between old club rivalries.
It is rare for an England manager to criticize the side’s own fans in such terms but Southgate has never dodged difficult questions during his time in charge.
He was in no mood to soft pedal and it was another sign of Southgate’s strength in his position and his determination to protect the unity he has built so carefully in his England squad.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was one of the first to react on social media, his response mixing anger with what appeared to be total disbelief as he asked: “What have we become?”
There was a period when England’s squad had a divide between Liverpool and Manchester United players – not now. Henderson and Maguire may be fierce rivals at club level but they are very much together with England.
England captain Harry Kane said that after the team had “worked hard to rebuild our connection with England fans in the last few years” the booing was “just not right.”
West Ham midfielder Declan Rice, meanwhile, described the incidents as a “total embarrassment” and “absolute nonsense.”
It is the sign of the credit England’s players have in the bank with the majority of supporters that they felt able to speak out so openly about how hurt they were at the popular Maguire’s treatment and criticize a section of their own support so vehemently.
It felt like a line being drawn in the sand.
Southgate and his squad also very obviously feel the majority of more measured England fans will sympathize and agree with their views and support Maguire.
There can be no escape from the fact Maguire has been having a very poor season at Manchester United but he is not alone there – team-mate Marcus Rashford was dropped from the England squad as a result of his decline. The defender even felt the rough end of the Old Trafford crowd’s tongue in the recent Champions League last-16 loss to Atletico Madrid.
And he is not the first England player to be turned on by his own fans, John Barnes being a well-chronicled target in the past.
Southgate has been prepared to criticize England’s fans in the past, as he did in November 2019 when a section of the Wembley crowd jeered the introduction of substitute Joe Gomez during the 7-0 win against Montenegro in a Euro 2020 qualifier.
Liverpool defender Gomez was the innocent party in a bust-up involving England team-mate Raheem Sterling at St George’s Park, an incident that resulted in the Manchester City forward being dropped from the squad as a disciplinary measure.
Southgate said after the game: “I am hugely disappointed for Joe. Joe had done nothing wrong. No England player should ever be booed when they are wearing the shirt.”
The reaction from England’s players to Tuesday’s jeers carried extra weight because even if Maguire’s performances at United have been sub-standard – and they have – he has been one of Southgate’s most reliable and trusted players.
Was it simply a partisan anti-Manchester United response to Maguire’s struggles at club level? Would Rashford have received the same treatment had he been included in the squad and played?
It should also be noted that many England supporters then made it their business to get behind Maguire but in the eyes of Southgate and his players, certainly those who spoke out so publicly, the damage was done.
Southgate’s England have made the national team popular with the public again after a number of years when the circus surrounding the so-called ‘golden generation’ meant many had fallen out of love with them.
There has also been the fostering of a far more media-friendly relationship, although no-one should delude themselves: this relationship is always shaped by results and England’s have been largely very satisfactory under Southgate.
It has been a happy and mutually beneficial relationship between England’s players and fans but that has not stopped the side taking on some of their own very publicly and in unflattering terms here.
Maguire felt the total support of those inside England’s camp if not some of those inside Wembley and it was a moment of significance that it was not allowed to pass without such a public, condemnatory response.