Southgate: We are asked to navigate complex political aspects that I am not really trained to do


The season is less than a month old yet England manager Gareth Southgate cut a strangely fatigued figure as he announced his first squad of 2023-24 at St George’s Park.

He certainly has plenty on his plate right now.

Before a European Championship qualifier away to Ukraine next Saturday (September 9), to be played in Poland because of the conflict with Russia’s invaders, and a friendly against Scotland in Glasgow three days later, Southgate is dealing with an injury crisis in defence and a lack of game time at club level for some of the 26 players he selected.

He also had to field questions about misogyny in football, Mason Greenwood’s international future, whether England women’s counterpart Sarina Wiegman could manage in the men’s game, the decision to backtrack over wearing the OneLove armband in support of the LGBTQI+ community at the World Cup last year in Qatar, and the decision by one of his senior players, Jordan Henderson, to swap the Premier League this summer for the Saudi Pro League.


OneLove armband u-turn is a reminder that men’s football will not stand up for LGBT people

At one stage as he faced the media on Thursday afternoon, Southgate seemed to be looking down, searching for some inspiration as the questions about everything but the two games of football kept coming, including whether he thought long-time LGBTQI+ ally Henderson would receive an adverse reaction from England fans over his choice to play in Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal to be homosexual or transgender.

Henderson’s move to Saudi hasn’t cost him his England place (Ali Alhaji/AFP via .)

“We are picking a team for football reasons,” Southgate said, pausing to choose his words carefully as he plotted his way through the news conference.

“I don’t really know why a player would receive an adverse reaction because of where he plays his football. That’s a personal choice.

“I am a bit lost, really, with some of the questioning. You try to talk about a squad announcement based on football decisions and increasingly we are asked to navigate some complex political aspects that I am not really trained to do. Forgive me if I am stumbling a little bit. I find it a really difficult scenario to try to get right.

“We will do the best we can and we are trying to make decisions on any number of reasons, but I have to pick a squad based on the players we think can qualify us for the European Championship.”

Southgate said that to do his job correctly he would need to visit Saudi Arabia to see Henderson in the same way he would take in Harry Kane at Bayern Munich or Jude Bellingham at Real Madrid, but “if I’m advised that it’s not acceptable then I’d have to accept that.”

Speaking further about criticism of Henderson, he said: “I don’t really know what the morality argument is because so many of our industries are wrapped up with Saudi investment. Given the situation with Russia we are reliant on Saudi Arabia for a lot of our oil.

“They’re invested in so many British industries but I don’t hear any noises about that. It’s only the football that’s highlighted. The LGBT+ stance is a religious belief in that country. It’s very difficult to work through all that so until somebody tells me differently on whether I can or can’t pick players if they’re playing in different countries . . . ”

When it comes to those football decisions, he may have preferred to have left Harry Maguire out of his squad this time as the Manchester United centre-back has yet to play any minutes this season. However, the injuries to John Stones, Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady left him with few options. Fellow defender Eric Dier, yet to even make a matchday squad for Tottenham Hotspur in their four matches so far (Maguire has been in two for United), was left out.

At full-back, too, injuries have robbed him of new Chelsea captain Reece James and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw.

Two of his three preferred holding midfielders are also in situations that are not ideal. Kalvin Phillips has been called up by Southgate despite being an unused substitute for Manchester City in all five games to date, while Henderson has been venturing into the unknown as the new captain of Al Ettifaq.

On the latter, Southgate said: “We’ve watched every game (Henderson has started three of their four under manager Steven Gerrard over the past two weeks). The key as we move forward is going to be the physical intensity of the league because of the heat as well, whether that is going to allow him to perform at the level we need.”


Behind the scenes of the Saudi Pro League: What really awaits stars like Neymar

Up front, he opted for Newcastle United’s Callum Wilson, who has come off the bench in all three of their games this season, as captain Harry Kane’s understudy rather than Ollie Watkins, despite his form for Aston Villa.

The biggest talking point in attack, however, was the omission of Chelsea’s Raheem Sterling, who had also been absent from the two squads since the World Cup but was expected to be recalled, especially after his two-goal performance in the 3-0 win over Luton Town last Friday. Southgate has instead included Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah for the first time — a decision he admitted did not go down well with Sterling, who has won 82 caps.

“It is a difficult call and Raheem isn’t particularly happy about it,” he said. “I’m convinced he will have a good season at Chelsea, I’ve no doubt about that.”

Southgate will be hoping next week’s matches bring a better start to the season on the pitch than he has had off it so far.

Southgate’s England squad

Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal), Sam Johnstone (Crystal Palace).

Defenders: Ben Chilwell (Chelsea), Levi Colwill (Chelsea), Lewis Dunk (Brighton), Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Fikayo Tomori (AC Milan), Kieran Trippier (Newcastle), Kyle Walker (Manchester City).

Midfielders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Jordan Henderson (Al-Ettifaq), Kalvin Philipps (Manchester City), Declan Rice (Arsenal).

Forwards: Eberechi Eze (Crystal Palace), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Bayern Munich), James Maddison (Tottenham), Eddie Nketiah (Arsenal), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Callum Wilson (Newcastle)

(Top photo: Nick Potts/PA Images via .)

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