How England players went from being targets of boo boys to likable lads

The England team have had a busy week. Championing year 7 school kids, engaging in LGBTQ+ allyship, sharing mental health advice with fans and continuing their stand against racism, it’s been nonstop. Fortunately they still found time to beat Germany in a knockout match for the first time since 1966 and on Saturday face Ukraine in the quarter-final of the Euros. The trophy is only three wins away.

The scenes of gleeful carnage inside Wembley on Tuesday, when fans and players bounced off one other’s enthusiasm, suggested a communion that has not always been evident when it comes to the national side. Think back to the 2010 World Cup, and Wayne Rooney snarling: “Nice to see your own fans booing you” into the camera.

So when did the Three Lions become so likable? From Harry Kane talking about the “gift” of being able to positively affect a nation’s mood, to Jordan Henderson getting behind a young fan who’d found the confidence to embrace their queerness at a match for the first time, positive vibes have radiated from the team this week. The boy from Brent, Raheem Sterling, showcased pupils from his old school, Ark Elvin academy in a pre-match video. Luke Shaw, in an interview on the FA’s YouTube show Lions’ Den, talked about the privilege of being a parent before gushing about his young teammate Bukayo Saka. “I would just love it if he was my child or something,” he said. The list of touching moments goes on.

“You’ve got so many examples in that England side of players who are using their status and influence in the game for the better,” says John Mousinho, new chair of the players’ union, the PFA. “Social media has a huge influence on what sort of message players think they can get out there. The other part is that players are becoming a bit more aware of societal issues. We all know what Marcus Rashford did and how powerful that was.”

Social media is one inarguable difference between the current England squad and those of the past. In many ways it is a bane of athletes’ lives, a constant source of abuse confirmed in recent reporting by the Guardian. But it is also a massive platform that allows players to communicate to tens of millions of people without the intermediary of the press, an old adversary that is still not quite trusted.

The FA also curates a positive message. Lions’ Den, a programme that is hosted by Josh Denzel and goes out live each day during the Euros, is a cross between Blue Peter and the One Show with players talking in a relaxed environment before taking on sporting challenges and, crucially, answering questions direct from fans over Zoom. A legacy of the 2018 World Cup campaign, it was part of a deliberate FA strategy to put the players out there more, to show the public who they are.

Those players are perhaps more down to earth than previous “golden” generations, eight of the squad are with partners they started dating as teenagers, and they are products of a type of coaching less martial than generations previous. “Football has evolved,” says Mousinho. “Players are just people, they want to be loved, they want to be valued. The modern footballer [is able to show] a different side, and it reflects how they want to be treated.”

An emotional literacy and a willingness to take on challenges outside football, has been developed by the manager Gareth Southgate. “He encourages the players to step beyond their roles as footballers and not see it as a distraction but something that helps their game,” says Mousinho.

Ultimately, Southgate has responsibility for the character of his squad, on the field and off as the two are linked. According to Mark Gannon, the head of UK Coaching, it is an area in which the England manager excels.

“Gareth Southgate possesses a high level of emotional intelligence that is critical to leading a national team,” Gannon says. “He understands perfectly that you cannot build a successful group culture without first developing a shared sense of purpose and embedding a common set of beliefs, values and expected behaviours.

“Unquestionably, Southgate has achieved this all-important collective buy-in from his players, helped to a considerable extent by the fact that he role models these exemplary behaviours himself.”