Thousands of England fans booed the players as they took the knee last night before their match against Austria, leaving BBC pundits stunned amid growing supporter discontent at the gesture.
After renditions of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ and the national anthems, there were audible jeers as the players took the knee at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium – the first time an England side have done so in front of a home crowd.
The boos were so loud that BBC Radio 5 Live commentator John Murray was left stunned, telling listeners: ‘Wow that was quite a reaction. There was a lot of booing there. I’m quite taken aback by how loud that was.’
The stadium welcomed 8,000 fans for the match against Austria, with TV images suggesting a significant portion of several thousand were behind the booing.
Despite cheers drowning out the boos soon after, the episode reflects growing anger among supporters who see the gesture as ‘political’.
England manager Gareth Southgate and TV host Piers Morgan led condemnation of the booing, but other supporters rallied to defend the fans on Twitter.
Audible jeers were heard as England and Austria players took the knee before the friendly
Jude Bellingham and Tyrone Mings take the knee prior to kick-off on Wednesday night
One fan wrote: ‘It’s nothing about the colour of anybody’s skin. You don’t have to get on your knees to be against racism. It’s about time footballers stopped getting on their knees for a political movement.’
Another added: ‘The boos are not in support of racism, but in the act of taking the knee, which has become a political statement. Political statements have no place in sport.’
While a third said: ‘Unfortunately taking the knee, whether it means so or not, is now associated by many with a political movement who run petitions off their websites calling for #DefundThePolice and educational movements which do not sit well with a large proportion of the population.’
Footballers first began taking the knee last June after the death of George Floyd and an outpouring of anti-racist demonstrations across the western world.
It also came amid a slew of racist incidents in the sport, including regular social media abuse of black players.
The abuse seems to have increased recently, with Manchester City duo Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker subjected to racist abuse after their Champions League final defeat to Chelsea last week.
The pair were both sent monkey emojis on social media platform Instagram after the game, according to Sky Sports, just days after Manchester United star Marcus Rashford had received ‘at least 70’ racist messages following their Europa League final loss to Villarreal.
Sterling, who has been a vocal campaigner against racism in football, has been targeted by trolls on a number of occasions this season – and earlier this month was sent vile messages just 48 hours after the Premier League and its clubs had carried out a 48 hour boycott of social media platforms.
England have several black players in their squad including match-winner Bukayo Saka, Tyrone Mings, Jude Bellingham, Jesse Lingard, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jadon Sancho.
In March, Wilfried Zaha became the Premier League’s first player to stop taking the knee before kick-off, describing the act as ‘degrading’.
Ivory Coast international Zaha instead stood with his arms behind his back.
He later explained: ‘There is no right or wrong decision, but, personally, I feel kneeling has just become a part of the pre-match routine.
‘At the moment it doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse.
‘I know there is a lot of work being done behind the scenes at the Premier League and other authorities to make change and I fully respect that. I also fully respect my team-mates and players at other clubs who continue to take the knee.
‘As a society, I feel we should be encouraging better education in schools and social media companies should be taking stronger action against people who abuse others online — not just footballers. I now just want to focus on football and enjoy being back playing on the pitch. I will continue to stand tall.’
England manager Gareth Southgate said after last night’s match that he believes the message behind taking the knee before kick-off is being lost.
Southgate also said that he felt the booing of the knee could be construed as a ‘criticism’ of England’s black players.
‘I did hear it,’ he said when asked about the immediate reaction from a large number of fans.
Piers Morgan slammed the ‘supposed England fans’ who booed the team on Wednesday
Gareth Southgate claims the reason behind taking the knee has been misunderstood
‘It’s not something on behalf of our black players that I wanted to hear because it feels as though it is a criticism of them.
‘I think we have got a situation where some people seem to think it is a political stand that they don’t agree with.
‘That’s not the reason the players are doing it. We are supporting each other.’
The initial jeers were overtaken by a groundswell of support and, with other stadiums across England witnessing similar responses since the return of fans, Southgate wants to see the meaning behind the message reaffirmed.
‘I was pleased that was drowned out by the majority of the crowd but we can’t deny the fact that it happened,’ he added.
‘I think the most important thing for our players to know is that all their team-mates, all the staff are fully supportive.
‘I think the majority of people understand it, some people aren’t quite understanding the message and I suppose we are seeing that across a number of football grounds at the moment.’
Piers Morgan hit out at the fans at the Riverside Stadium who decided to jeer the players, claiming the England squad should walk off next time they boo.
Morgan wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning: ‘Disgusting to hear so many supposed England fans loudly boo a team with many black players for taking the knee to protest racial inequality, then loudly cheer one of those black players when he scored.
‘Next time these idiots boo, the players should walk off.’
Furthermore, midfielder Jack Grealish – who played a key part in England’s winning goal – said none of the players were happy about it.
‘I think that will get talked about in the next few days,’ he told Sky Sports. ‘It’s a thing we don’t want in football in general and especially in our games.
England players are expected to continue taking the knee this summer during the European Championships – one of the most watched events in world football.
UEFA have strict rules regarding political statements but have allowed England players to take the knee during the Nations League and are unlikely to change their stance during the tournament.
Prior to Wednesday night, players had already faced resistance since fans returned to stadiums with some fans booing the taking of the knee before previous matches.
Fans at Wembley for the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Leicester booed before applause drowned out the protests. A similar sentiment was heard at Old Trafford for Manchester United’s game against Fulham on May 18.