Gareth Southgate says he has never picked an England team “based on external reaction” and will not change tack despite Jordan Henderson facing a potential backlash from some fans for moving to Saudi Arabia.
The 33-year-old this summer swapped the Liverpool captaincy for the Saudi Pro League, joining Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq in a controversial £12million deal.
Henderson has been a high-profile supporter of LGBTQ+ rights during his time on Merseyside and this week apologised for any hurt he caused by moving to a country where homosexuality is illegal.
The midfielder hoped his move to Saudi Arabia can help the LGBTQ+ rights movement and is now set to feature in his first international match since joining Al-Ettifaq when England face Ukraine in Saturday’s Euro 2024 qualifier in Wroclaw.
Asked if the potential for a negative reaction towards Henderson impacts his thinking, Southgate said: “No, I don’t pick the team based on external reaction as you’ll be well aware over the course of seven years.
“But he’s a very experienced professional. He is very mature at handling any situation, really.
“He’s trained really well this week, the whole group have. I’ve been really pleased with the approach to everything. Everybody is available, which is good for us.”
Joe White, the co-chair of LGBTQ+ fan groups network Pride in Football and founder of Three Lions Pride, last week said they did not believe Henderson would receive a hostile reception from LGBTQ+ supporters.
However, they warned that his presence could see some fans turn their back on the midfielder “in the same way he turned his back on us” – something Henderson said it hurt to hear.
“Well, I think Jordan expressed himself this week that he’d be sad if that’s how they felt,” England boss Southgate said. “His feeling towards that community hasn’t changed.
“I think as a team… I am sure all of our fans are going to get behind the team when the game starts.
“I understand some of the comments that have been, and I respect the comments that have been made.
“But I think what’s also been said is that they’re going to get behind the team when we play, and I am sure they’ll get behind Jordan when the game starts as well.”
Southgate has a 24-strong squad to select from against Ukraine, with England looking to all but secure qualification for Euro 2024 by claiming a fifth straight Group C win.
The Polish city of Wroclaw is playing host to the match as Ukraine continue to stage matches outside of their homeland following the Russian invasion last year, with a yellow and blue wall awaiting England at the Tarczynski Arena.
“We know of course hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are living here so we’re expecting a very passionate and partisan support for their team,” Southgate said. “We are used to playing in that sort of environment.
“We’re of course respectful of the occasion, but our job is to come here and attempt to win a football game.
“So, for us making sure we keep the emotions in check and make sure that we’re focusing on our job.”
Southgate added: “I can’t talk on a broader perspective but football-wise it’s just a difficult game for us.
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“A team we respect a lot, some players that have played in England that some of the players know very, very well.
“We know that we have to be at our very best to get the win that we want.”
The atmosphere and quality of the opposition were part of the rationale behind Southgate sticking with the tried and tested against Ukraine.
The absence of John Stones and Tyrone Mings has heightened the importance of Harry Maguire’s experience, although his Manchester United game-time and form remains a concern.
The 30-year-old lost the captaincy at Old Trafford this summer and his only 23 minutes of the season came off the bench in Sunday’s 3-1 loss at Arsenal.
“I haven’t spoken to him about his situation this week, I have in the past few weeks,” Southgate said.
“He’s looked good. He’s training with top players every day. Obviously he got into the game the other day at a critical point, so as a defender that’s not ideal, to come into a game at that situation.
“But of course he’s a very experienced player and he’s looked very good in training.
“Harry knows where our support is. He knows he has to keep playing well for us and I think over the next few weeks given what’s happening with their (United) squad with injuries he may well have a lot more minutes for them as well.”