Gareth Southgate called it “an absolute joke”. Declan Rice went with “total embarrassment”. For Jack Grealish it was “ridiculous”, which works on quite a few levels. Given time to reflect, Jordan Henderson was more profoundly existential. “What have we become?” he asked. And it is an excellent question, deserving of a serious answer.
By that stage Southgate, who is generally the most sensible person in the room, had also compared the jeers directed at Harry Maguire before kick-off on Tuesday night to the sustained racist abuse of John Barnes by card-carrying neo-Nazis in the 1980s. At which point it is hard not to wonder if this is all really about the thing it’s about. Or if England’s manager and his players are being caught in a sideswipe from somewhere else, a self-fuelling piece of theatre born out of TV noise, punditry blather and the idiot wind of social media. Harry Maguire: anatomy of a booing. This is how news works now. And none of us come out of it looking great.
Except the players, perhaps. On the most basic level it is good to see them sticking up for their mate. These are nice people. They do this for each other. And it’s good energy in other ways. Outside pressure can have an adhesive effect. Teams run on this kind of fuel. But it is hard to avoid the feeling of being dragged into some kind of cross-platform media event, a pantomime pile-on that might still do some genuine harm to the only relationship that really matters in all of this.
The jeers from the supporters came as Maguire’s name was read out. This is not something that happens. There was a sense of double-take around the press box. But it seemed like there were some more the first time Maguire got the ball, although it was hard to tell if these were actually directed at a foul on Ollie Watkins. And there may have been more after that, although none that were audible from the south side of the stadium.
It seemed significant that there were other unexpected noises throughout that first half, from the squeals of excitement whenever Grealish got the ball, to waves of noise that didn’t seem to relate to things in the usual football way. It all had a panto feel at times. The VAR checks brought groans, howls, theatrical countdown stuff.
It seems significant that this was a young and restless friendly crowd. There are discounted tickets for these games. Family bundles were being offered. The crowd heading away at the end was more youthful and more mixed in age and sex than is often the case at Premier League games. This is good. New people are good. England football needs this.
But it was perhaps a factor in the booing, which didn’t, to a long-term booing observer, feel quite the same as other booing in the past. There was a mischievous kind of theatre to it, a self-awareness, like the kind of booing you might hear from the Saturday evening sofa when some cinematic talent show scoundrel show pops up on screen.
Football is a TV show now and TV demands heroes and villains. For the last year the weekly vilification of Maguire and his Manchester United colleagues has been been one of the dominant images of English football: a kind of zingy, salty theatre of pain, club-legend pundits taking it in turns to emote the stickiest, most clippable moments of show-fury.
Here we have Roy Keane, sat on his throne like a wronged tribal elder, eyes glistening with ancient noble rage. Here we have another instalment in the ongoing inquiry into the public health disaster, the systemic horrors, the reactor core meltdown of Maguire’s disappointing club season. This is now an established TV trope, hot content, a way of reeling in the eyeballs while also buffing your own own punditry brand.
It is also based in a fallacy. Maguire has had a poor season in a poor Manchester United team. But he has at no stage given up, or behaved cynically. The idea that he deserves to be booed is entirely mimetic, imitative, screen-influenced, like chanting your favourite TV catchphrase or yelling at soap opera characters in the street like they’re real people.
And in the end none of this seems very real at all; from those diffuse Wembley boos to the rolling aftermath whereby this had by Wednesday morning become the top story on the breakfast bulletin, subject of chin stroking follow-up articles, the newest front in football’s ongoing battle with its own strange furies.
Drown out the noise and the suggestion that Maguire doesn’t deserve to be playing for England is also nonsensical. He has a serious body of work here. These have been the Harry-Harry-Razza years, the rump of the team in those glorious twin tournament runs. Maguire has played 14 England games since October 2020, with 12 wins, no defeats, 10 clean sheets and also six (yes really: six) England goals. Really? You want to drop this guy?
He played well at Wembley too, always there to be used as a wall or a resting place in possession, and carrying the ball forward to great effect. Maguire with England: this is the best of him. It isn’t hard to see why. Five years of settled selection and tournament training has left England with a more grooved defensive system than the fretful chop and change at United.
This England defence moves together, communicates well and knows its positions at every phase. With 20 minutes gone Maguire was caught upfield, but came chugging back dutifully, drifting into position unnoticed as James Ward-Prowse and Tyrone Mings smothered the danger. Compare this with the wild free jazz of the United backline. Maguire and England: this works.
Perhaps a more productive form of punditry would be to ask why this is, to critique the structural reasons why so many talented players perform poorly in a United shirt, to examine why the club seems such an essentially unhappy place. Or you know, just go with the cinematic rage.
It is worth noting any sense of hostility evaporated almost instantly. England fans generally like and admire Maguire. Throughout the game there were droning trumpet renditions of the Haa-rry Mag-why-er song, intoned to the tune of La Bamba. With 20 minutes gone he shielded a dangerous attack out of play and drew a warm gust of applause from the same western end that had generated those boos.
All England eras have a shelf life. It has been six years of Southgate now, and more games than any England manager besides Bobby Robson and Alf Ramsey. England’s players, supporters and their entirely admirable manager have been dragged through some pretty strange places in that time, not least the gruelling tides of the last two years.
Little wonder everyone around here might get a little angsty and prickly now and then. But the booing of Maguire feels like a false flag, learned behaviour, TV distraction. Listen to Jack: it’s ridiculous.