English clubs desperate to find an alternative to taking the knee

EXCLUSIVE: Worried EFL clubs are DESPERATE to find an alternative to taking the knee next season as they fear boos will spread across the country with gesture seen as ‘divisive’ by some fans – but players will still be free to choose

  • Sportsmail has spoken to EFL club executives about thoughts on taking a knee
  • Clubs are concerned that the boos directed at the national team will spread
  • EFL sides would support the development of other forms of protests
  • But issue is still seen as a matter of personal choice among players and coaches 

English Football League clubs are concerned that the conflict over ‘taking a knee’ at international level will be played out on football grounds across the country next season.

Clubs have told Sportsmail they want to find  an alternative to the gesture when they protest against racism once domestic competition resumes in August. 

Last term, on the few occasions that fans were actually allowed to attend matches due to the coronavirus pandemic, some players were booed when they took the knee before games in the EFL.

‘The knee’ has also attracted abuse from England supporters, including prior to the national team’s tournament opener against Croatia, raising concerns for the season ahead.

‘We need to find a way out of it,’ said Ian Mather, chief executive of Cambridge United, where a small number of fans booed last season. ‘I think that will be shared across the EFL.

‘My personal view is that football should say at some point ‘we will stop taking the knee, but not stop fighting against racism’.

Sportsmail understands that the EFL is aware of divergent views on the issue and discussions with clubs are taking place.

Gareth Southgate said last week that he would not allow his players to continue to be questioned about the knee and the subsequent reaction once the tournament got under way. Pictured: England players Raheem Sterling and Kieran Trippier taking the knee against Croatia

Booing was heard in the EFL last season, including when Cambridge versus Colchester

The EFL clubs spoken to by Sportsmail are not objecting to the England team taking the knee during Euro 2020. In fact, the clubs believe the decision to take a knee, or not, is for players and team managers at both an international and domestic level.

And Gareth Southgate and England have been clear it is something they feel very strongly about.

Ian Mather, chief executive of Cambridge United, has suggested an alternative is need to ‘taking a knee’ next season

However, clubs would like an alternative action to demonstrate their commitment to equality and their stance against discrimination once domestic football resumes in August.

A minority of fans have justified their vocal objections to players taking the knee by claiming that the gesture is politicised because of an association with the Black Lives Matter organisation. Others have claimed they don’t want political gestures associated with football.

Booing was heard at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium for England’s warm-up matches ahead of Euro 2020 against Austria and Romania earlier this month.

The boos continued at Wembley when England played Croatia in their opening match of Euro 2020, although they were quickly drowned out by other fans’ cheers.

England’s players were booed for taking a knee ahead of their two recent friendly matches

The FA released a statement on the eve of the Croatia  match urging fans not to boo the players

The abuse has persisted despite the England manager, Gareth Southgate, the players and the Football Association making it clear that their actions are simply an anti-racism protest.

In an open letter to fans, Southgate said it was a ‘duty’ for stars to ‘interact with the public on matters such as equality and racial injustice’. 

The FA also asked supporters to back the players anti racist protest, stating: ‘They will do their best for you. Please do your best for them.’ 

However, clubs are concerned that if the national team with its profile and leverage is struggling to persuade fans that ‘the knee’ is simply a protest against racism, they will find it even harder to put the point across.

Mather and Cambridge won praise last year for the quick and decisive action the club took to deal with a small number of fans booing at the Abbey Stadium ahead of a League Two fixture against Colchester United.

The majority of England fans inside Wembley stadium obeyed Gareth Southgate’s pleas to respect players as they took the knee ahead of their opening Euro 2020 match against Croatia

The majority of England flans applauded the players when they opted to take a knee

A small number of fans were heard booing players as they performed the gesture to protest against racism, before the jeers were drowned out by applause

They handed a stadium ban to some and asked others to undertake education around discrimination and equality before they are allowed to attend again.

‘[The booing] is going to continue to hit the headlines,’ said the chief executive. ‘We are never going to get zero booing.’

Mather believes that one option could be designated days on which all of football, from the grassroots to the Premier League, undertakes a shared action.

Gove backs players taking the knee after Patel branded it ‘gesture politics’ 

Michael Gove said people should have the opportunity to show their ‘strength of feeling against prejudice’, after his Cabinet colleague Priti Patel branded the act of footballers taking the knee as ‘gesture politics’.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Mr Gove said he would be ‘lustily’ supporting his native Scotland on Friday when they take on England in the Euros.

Scotland players will take the knee in solidarity with their England counterparts when they meet at Wembley in a group match.

Asked if he would be supporting people to take the knee before the game, the Cabinet Office minister told Times Radio: ‘I think that people who want to show their strength of feeling against prejudice should have the opportunity to do so.’

His comments come a day after the Home Secretary said she does not support England’s footballers taking the knee in protest against racial injustice.

The debate about the gesture of taking the knee now extends well beyond football, to the very top of government.

On Monday, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, used an interview with GB News to accuse England players of ‘gesture politics’ after following their anti-racism protest at Wembley on Sunday.

Ms Patel claimed the Black Lives Matter protests last summer had a ‘devastating’ impact on policing as she criticised the toppling of the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

She also refused to criticise fans at the Euro 2020 opener who booed the team when they made the symbolic anti-racism gesture before kick-off.

However, No10 refused to back Patel’s comments today, with a spokesman for the Prime Minister saying: ‘He wants to see fans cheering and not booing.

‘He wants to see everyone get behind this England team, and of course Scotland and Wales, who are competing in the Euros, that is very much his position.’

And shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens, went further saying it ‘beggars belief’ that the Home Secretary would try to ‘to provoke a fight with the England football team’ during the tournament.

Meanwhile, former West Ham United and Queens Park Rangers manager, Harry Redknapp, told GB News he was against people booing, but he added: ‘I don’t know how long we’re going to keep doing it for, it can’t go on forever can it.’

There is a feeling among some clubs that a link between ‘the knee’ and the Black Lives Matter organisation has taken root with a minority of supporters and as a result the gesture has become ‘divisive’.

Millwall fans booed their players taking a knee before kick-off in a home game against Derby, last season. The Millwall Supporters’ Club said the booing before the match was not motivated by racism, but ‘in opposition to the political views held by the Black Lives Matter organisation’.

Millwall fans booed players who took the knee at last season’s Championship clash with Derby

Players from both clubs took a knee before kick-off as part of the fight against racism

One supporter was also heard booing at Exeter City and was ejected from the ground as a result.

Former FA chief executive and the owner of Tranmere Rovers, Mark Palios, believes it would be better to look for alternative actions, even though his club’s players will still be empowered to make their own decisions.

Mark Palios, owner of Tranmere Rovers, fears the gesture has become ‘divisive’

‘We are all dead set against racism,’ the highly respected executive told Sportsmail. ‘My view is that the players who are black deserve the credit for the changes and improvements being made because they made people see [the problem], through their professionalism [and] the way in which they dealt with it.

‘I am deeply respectful of that. But we are not there yet. We have to keep going.

‘I would prefer to find another way next season because I think [the knee] has been hijacked and it’s got divisive.

He added: ‘It is essentially a personal thing. We treat it at this club as entirely something for the players and I would never take that away.’

Palios said it will be up to the manager to discuss the issue with his players ahead of next season. Similarly, he believes that taking the knee during Euro 2020 is a decision for Gareth Southgate and the England team.

Colchester chairman, Robbie Cowling, urged those who wanted to boo the pre-match gesture not to return last season – and he offered to refund the season tickets of anyone who chose to accept his request. However, he has also been keen to explore other options.

‘I think it would be a good idea to have a gesture that shows we are against discrimination and for it not to be linked to Black Lives Matter,’ said Cowling, who stressed that the players will be free to make their own decision at the JobServe Community Stadium.

‘I know it is not linked, but there is a perception that it is. None of us want to do something and it gets booed.’

Cowling thinks many supporters would seek to drown out boos at EFL grounds, as they have watching England. But he added: ‘Who knows who would win that battle? The boos might get louder.

‘The warning signs have been there and someone needs to grip this and do something different.’

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