Phillips: England progressing on knee debate

Kalvin Phillips believes England are making progress in the debate surrounding taking a knee and insists the racist abuse his team-mates have suffered does not detract from representing his country.

A sizeable number of fans booed the England players as they made the gesture in their two Euro 2020 warm-up games against Austria and Romania at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium in June, triggering a controversy which continued into the tournament.

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However, as England progressed from the group stage and through the knockout rounds, applause far outweighed any audible criticism at Wembley before Gareth Southgate’s side suffered an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy in the final.

“It’s hard to say we’re starting to win [the battle] but we’re going in the right direction,” said Phillips after joining up with the latest England squad at St George’s Park.

“The boos at Middlesbrough were disappointing and heart-breaking for us but as time went on, the more vocal we were that we were going to take the knee and support what we believe in, I think a lot of fans understood that and they did switch the other way and carried on cheering for us.”

England face Hungary in Budapest on Thursday for a World Cup 2022 qualifier which some fear may be overshadowed by more abuse given the hosts were ordered to play their next three Uefa matches behind closed doors after incidents of racism and homophobia among the country’s supporters during all their Euro 2020 group stage matches.

As Thursday’s game is a FIFA match, around 60,000 fans are expected to fill the Puskas Arena and Phillips said: “I obviously know about the situation and how it’s been over there but it’s not happened yet so I can’t really say anything on that.

“I just know that us as a group know we’ll carry on taking the knee because it’s important for us, important for our country and to fight racial abuse.”

Three England players who missed penalties in July’s shoot-out defeat to Italy — Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho — were all subjected to online abuse in the wake of the final.

Phillips was the first to console Saka on the pitch and although then game’s authorities and social media companies continue to grapple with the issue, the Leeds midfielder said: “Obviously it is out of our hands. If I had it my way, if I was in charge of any of the social media teams or anything I would just block them or report them to the authorities. It is very hard to do that and that is what we are pushing towards. That is what we need to do.

“For me personally it doesn’t take the edge off it, playing for my country. I want to make my family and my country proud, regardless of what goes on outside. I am not going to let things like that, but other than that it is a major honour.

“For me as a person, I feel like if anybody feels disappointed or anything, I want them to be able to come and talk to me. In the way we lost the final, especially for Bukayo because he is so young, on a big stage, I just felt like I needed to go over and console him.

“I just said ‘don’t worry about it. I said ‘it happens in football.’ I said to him ‘lift your head up.’ Obviously he is going to be upset at that moment but even after the game in the changing room, I’m just saying ‘listen, that’s the way football is and if it was anybody else, we’d all do the same. We all think the world of you right now.’

“We all obviously spoke about it afterwards and there was a lot of stuff going around on social media but I think more than ever we know we are all there to support each other, no matter who it is being racially abused or anything. We are all a team and all there for each other.

“He was very calm. Obviously, Bukayo knew the situation wasn’t great and things that were happening were out of his hands. There were disgusting things really that were going on. It was the same for Jadon and Marcus as well.”