Mischaracterised White is a loss to England

As one of few journalists fortunate enough to have spent time, one-on-one, in the company of Ben White, it has been fascinating to observe the furore caused by the defender’s decision to make himself unavailable for England selection.

The opportunity in question arose in the form of an interview for Sky Sports in October. “Good luck – you might need it,” was the common reaction from friends and colleagues beforehand. White was not known for relishing his media appearances. He still isn’t.

On this occasion, though, without a camera thrust in his face and at ease in the familiar surroundings of Arsenal’s London Colney training ground, it was striking to see first-hand just how much public perceptions of the 26-year-old differ from the reality.

White, often mischaracterised as aloof and uninterested, was thoughtful, engaging and generous with his time, fielding questions on topics ranging from the prospect of signing a new contract at Arsenal to the tactical complexities of his role in Mikel Arteta’s team.

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The Soccer Saturday panel discuss Ben White’s decision to make himself unavailable for England selection

Self-deprecation was a theme. He shrugged off the skill involved in nutmegging Manchester City’s Jeremy Doku in his previous appearance. “I was so tired, I didn’t really know what I was doing.” He also refused to take any credit for how Bukayo Saka was flourishing in front of him on Arsenal’s right flank. “He makes it so much easier than it should be.”

What also shone through was the seriousness with which he approaches his job.

“Not being injured and looking after myself is probably the biggest key to how I’ve progressed through the years,” he said when explaining his commitment to using the gym in his home every evening after training. “I think I’ve always been like that,” he added when asked about Arteta’s assertion that he trains like he is playing in a Champions League final.

Given the scrutiny that has followed, and the extent to which the comments continue to be used against him, White could be forgiven for regretting the revelation, in an interview earlier in his career, that he has little interest in watching football in his free time.

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Sky Sports News senior reporter Rob Dorsett takes a closer look at Ben White’s request to be left out of the latest England squad and what it may mean for his international future

It is testament to his honesty, though, and his refusal to read from the script of the media-trained modern player, that he exhibits no such regret. “Mentally, I check out when I leave training, so I’m completely resting whenever I’m away from it,” he added, unprompted, during that meeting in October.

“That doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.”

His team-mates agree. That much was clear in the testimonies of Martin Odegaard, Jorginho and others, all of whom lauded his professionalism, in a video published on Arsenal’s media channels after the announcement of his new contract last week.

White has subsequently been described in similar terms by those who have played with him internationally. “He was a great character to have around the place,” Conor Coady said on BBC Radio 5 Live. “How he trains, how he goes about his business, is top, top drawer.”

Passing up the opportunity to represent one’s country is of course an emotive subject. But those suggesting that representing England means nothing to White should revisit his comments after his debut in a Euro 2020 warm-up game against Austria three years ago.

“The feeling of stepping out on the pitch in an England shirt was unbelievable,” he said. “Something you dream of as a kid,” he added on social media. “Loved every minute of it!!”

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The Football Show panel look at the form of Ben White and how he has earned himself a new contract at Arsenal

It is also worth noting, in the context of his commitment and professionalism now being placed under scrutiny, that Southgate acknowledged the same traits as White’s team-mates in the wake of his non-playing role in England’s run to the Euro 2020 final.

The defender, a late-call-up for the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold having been cut form the provisional list, was one of only three outfield players not to play a single minute at the tournament. He didn’t even make the matchday squad in five out of seven games.

“They have been such a massive part of what we are doing,” said Southgate at the time. “It is so difficult to keep a group of this size involved, happy, feeling valued. And yet those guys have been phenomenal in how they have sacrificed themselves for the group.”

Perhaps White’s patience was tested by a second consecutive tournament on the fringes in Qatar.

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Arsenal defender Ben White says he feels settled and happy at Arsenal

But widespread newspaper reports suggest a spat with assistant coach Steve Holland is what led White to return home prematurely, causing a rift which now lies at the heart of his decision to make himself unavailable for a recall some 15 months later.

It is intriguing partly because it is so out of character. White has no history of disputes or disagreements with coaches. He barely misses a game for Arsenal. It was the same story at Brighton and at loan clubs Leeds, Peterborough and Newport County before that.

Privately, then, Southgate and his coaching staff may reflect on how they reached this point with a player who has been so reliable under so many different managers, albeit at club level.

It is worth emphasising, too, that White has not turned his back on England altogether. Southgate used the words “at this time” when making public his wish not to be considered. It would be no surprise to see him return to the fold should the circumstances change.

Until then, though, the gap between public perceptions of White and the reality of the person and professional he actually is will remain. The pity of it all is that his absence ultimately benefits no one.

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