Gareth Southgate has said there was no footballing reason to exclude Jordan Henderson from his England squad and the morality of the midfielder’s decision to join Al-Ettifaq in the Saudi Pro League was not a consideration for him.
Southgate sparked the usual discussions with his selection for England’s upcoming matches – the Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine in Poland a week on Saturday and the friendly against Scotland in Glasgow three days later. The manager did not pick Raheem Sterling despite the forward’s improved form for Chelsea in the early stages of the season, which he admitted had gone down predictably badly with one of his most experienced players. There were first call-ups for Levi Colwill and Eddie Nketiah, recalls for Ben Chilwell and Fikayo Tomori and continued faith in Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips, despite their lack of football at club level.
Southgate calmly explained his reasons for overlooking Sterling, who missed the Euro qualifiers against Italy and Ukraine in March through injury and those against Malta and North Macedonia in June after making himself unavailable. Southgate said there was no room for the Chelsea player because of the form of Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden and James Maddison. To add further options in wide areas, he said, stood to create problems.
But Southgate lacked his trademark composure when he was grilled over Henderson, who dismayed gay rights groups with his move to Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. Henderson had been a vocal supporter of the gay community during his time at Liverpool.
“I don’t really know what the morality argument is because so many of our industries are wrapped up with Saudi investment,” Southgate said. “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 …
“My job is to pick a football team. I don’t think you can pick a football team based on any prejudice about where they might be playing their football. I am a bit lost with some of the questioning. You walk in to talk about a squad for football and we are wading into complex political situations, which I am not really trained to do. We will do the best we can.”
Southgate has watched videos of Henderson’s three Al-Ettifaq games so far. He will base his selection of him on what he sees on the pitch and a clearer understanding of the level and intensity of the league.
“When Jordan phoned me about the likelihood he might be going there, we had an honest conversation,” Southgate said. “I said: ‘We’re going to have to map you against players playing in a different league and in a different level of competition and we’re just going to have to see how that goes.’
“I think he realises that by making the decision he has made, that is going to bring a certain level of scrutiny and criticism. I don’t think he’s naive enough to think that wouldn’t be the case. They’re questions he’s going to have to answer. I’d be pretty certain that his views on life haven’t changed at all.”
Southgate was asked whether he would take a job in Saudi. “I can easily say no and look like the big guy,” he said. “But can you answer that question until it is there in front of you? I’m not looking to leave the job I’m in.”
Nor did Southgate avoid another of the elephants in the room – the eye-watering salaries on offer in Saudi. Henderson has signed a two-year deal with the option of a third year which is worth £700,000 a week. He was on £200,000 a week at Liverpool before tax.
“Any career decision has got a lot of different factors within it,” said Southgate. “Obviously there is a lot of money within Saudi Arabia that is being paid – none of us are going to avoid that because it’s obvious. But Jordan’s prospects of playing at Liverpool were probably a big factor in that becoming more attractive than it might have been in the past.”
On Sterling, Southgate noted that the player’s decision to miss the June programme to focus on his fitness after a difficult season had paid dividends in the early weeks of this campaign. That said, it also allowed his rivals for selection to cement their places.
“Raheem was not available for the last two [get-togethers] and that has given other people the opportunity to play well and establish themselves in the group,” Southgate said. “It is a difficult call and Raheem is not particularly happy about it but he is an excellent player.
“Raheem is always really respectful with how he responds and deals [with things]. He will always say ‘I respect your decision’ but of course he wants to get back in.”
Southgate said that his omission of an in-form Sterling ought not to be conflated with his selections of Maguire and Phillips, who have yet to play a minute of football this season, because there were different levels of competition in different areas of his squad. Maguire, he said, was his only available experienced centre-half.
Southgate has injury problems in defence, where John Stones, Tyrone Mings, Luke Shaw and Reece James are out. Mason Mount is missing through injury in midfield.