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  • Writer's pictureJourneyman

Mexican Waves & Paper Planes

England 2-0 Ukraine (UEFA European Championships Qualifiers)

It was Non-League Day on Saturday, but I didn’t get to a game as the wife was jollying with friends at Center Parcs whilst I was left home alone with the dog.

I did consider taking Bruce to watch Radford v Rainworth Miners Welfare in the United Counties League but after his morning walk around West Bridgford, he wasn’t up for moving and to be honest, neither was I.

I did manage to catch a bit of Wealdstone v Barnet on BT Sport and also liked a tweet from Notts County who boasted over 16,000 in their 4-0 win over Scunthorpe. A whopping attendance at Meadow Lane for what is after all the fifth tier of English football.

Today, though, I have got a game day pass. The wife’s back from her travels to swap shifts and I’m off to Wembley with the lad. I say lad, he’s 18 now and made his debut as sub for Eastwood Community in their 4-0 loss at Melton Town last week. First pay packet arrived yesterday. A brown envelope with a couple of notes, reminding me of the good old days. He’s chuffed to bits.

On Thursday night I watched England on Channel 4 and was really impressed for 45 minutes in Naples. Not so the first half hour of the second half which was quite underwhelming and frustrating, but the last fifteen when a man down against the Italians after Luke Shaw’s sending off, Gareth Southgate’s ‘men’ dug in, showing fighting spirit to win a first match against the Azzurri on Italian soil since 1961. Harry Kane deserving the accolades for his record-breaking goal, but special mention to the gaffer who got his tactics spot on… Who says playing three right backs doesn’t work!

Today I’m off at midday down the M1, a now familiar route which is completed in a couple of hours, traffic slightly picking up before Luton, and at the end, coming off onto the North Circular. We’re early doors so use one of plenty of factory car parks on offer down the Great Central Way. £25 the damage although upon my walk I notice there’s closer availability at £20.

The Venue

The walk from the car park is ten minutes passing industrial units before you get to the high-rise buildings that surround the stadium. Arch peeping through the gaps as the hi-vis brigade gets heavier, fans in half and half scarves walking down the Engineers Way. We’ve a little time so head to London Designer Outlet and the packed Nike store where the lad buys a couple of new trackies for a good two hundred quid.

The bags too big to take inside the stadium so we head back to the car and drop it off, before going again, the same walk past student digs that smell of weed as we reach the recently installed Wembley steps and head under the main concourse to our Club Wembley entrance.

A quick scan of the tickets and we’re through the metal detectors, mobiles face up to read the bar code as we enter through barriers before heading up the escalators past the Bobby Moore Suite. No fancy nosh today, we’ll just play it by ear as we walk around the many food and drink outlets.

I’m at the doors of the Lioness Bar where a man stops me, ‘no wristband’ he says, “you need to walk to the other entrance where they’ll give you one.” We circle back and head for the other door where another fella tells us to ‘go straight in’ we look for a seat but all are taken so opt for chicken and chips from a kiosk on the concourse, sitting down on bar stools eating six nuggets and fries for £11.50 each.

I grab a quick drink of Coke Zero and a bag of Maltesers for another small fortune, as well as a programme from the members desk thankfully free, walk out to our seats behind the goal where the crowd is still sparse, an hour before kick off it’s time to put some bets on and watch the warm ups in the cold.

The Game

There’s nothing like the start of a big match at Wembley, the flags laid out pre-match as the team is read out to huge cheers, many first time fans, families and young kids, enthusiastically applauding louder, when the names of Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish are read out.

It’s a big day for England skipper Kane. He broke the record for most goals ever scored by an Englishman in International football on Thursday, he’s out with a plaque, wife and kids on the pitch having a photo in front of both sets of teams before the national anthems start and a moments applause for another England great, George Cohen a World Cup winner who sadly passed away earlier this year.

The two teams come together for a photo in support of Ukraine over recent troubles they’ve had with their nasty big brother Russia turning on them, the fans in yellow and blue are bouncing, vocal in the corner to my right, around two or three thousand of them in total.

The game is kicked off and the usual slow pace of international football sets the tone for a cagey opening. Ukraine look decent in possession, I’m shocked they’ve had more of the ball but they’re not really going anywhere, everything they do is inside their own half but for the odd occasion where they get a break, they don’t look bad with pace out wide through Mudryk and Malinovsky, Zinchenko pulling strings in the middle, but in fairness England’s midfield trio of Rice, Henderson and Bellingham don’t let much through. It seems everything up to half way England are happy with, then they close in like soldiers to block every Ukraine attack.

There’s one sniff as Malinovsky who’s five yards offside finds himself in the area with everyone stopped hands in the air. He fires wide under little pressure before the flag finally goes up, an annoying trait of Referees assistants these days to let play continue knowing full well the goal would never have stood had it gone in.

England have a couple of attempts as Harry Kane’s outstretched leg fails to connect on a couple of decent deliveries, before he switches play impressively to Bukayo Saka who checks on to his left foot to cross beautifully himself, to the back post where Kane this time dangles his right leg to prod home an opener.

That goal on 37 hardly looked like coming but within a couple of minutes it’s two as Saka then cuts in again and curls home into the top corner a real true moment of class. An intelligent footballer who’s beyond his years aged just 21, having the season of his life as Arsenal top the Premier League. A memorable goal for the PFA young footballer of the year in waiting.

The Score

I’ve got a wet arse from my padded seat, so i'm standing up at half time, my jeans are soaked, it’s not the first time it’s happened to me, the strange thing is that the seat next to me is fine, I’m looking upwards to the sky checking for leaks in the roof, a complaint I need to make to Wembley to get my seat re-upholstered.

At the break I’m predicting four or five with the lad but I know from experience England matches don’t always work out like that… I can just imagine Southgate’s team talk now… ‘you’ve won the match’ he’s saying… ‘Don’t let them back in… Close it out… Slow everything down’

England come out and have no intention of scoring again. They hold on to the ball well, they defend in fairness, magnificently, it’s all very boring, people are starting to throw paper aeroplanes and a couple of Mexican wave attempts fail. I feel they need a sub, I’m crying “Get Foden on” to only find out after he’s not even on the bench. He’s had surgery to remove his appendix in the time he flew back from Italy and England travelled from St Georges to HA9… I get the feeling this one wasn’t rushed through via the NHS.

People often moan about England’s style when it comes to qualification matches in international football, but often they come up against resilient defensive minded opposition who are tough to break down. Ukraine no different, they very rarely take chances even at two down, I’ve not seen either full back cross halfway. England will get the persistent calls of ‘being boring’ in the media often by footballers, who should know better, it takes two to tango, and if a team is not willing to play ball, it can make matches like this, very regimental, but in fairness, that suits England, as all they are interested in, is getting three points.

And get them they do, it’s been truly dominant and from a professional perspective I think it’s as good as you can get from a tactical level. Ukraine don’t have a shot. Defensively England are brilliant, the midfield trio is immense and the wingers, Maddison and Saka are lively, working hard off the ball with good quality on it. Harry Kane doing what he does best, a privilege to witness him live on so many occasions, in years to come I’ll be able to say, the record goalscorer for England, I’ve seen him score plenty at the home of football!

The Stars

Other than Kane who will one day go down as a true football great regardless of the trophies he does or does not win, Bukayo Saka is a player that I love, for doing the right thing, at the right time, his decision making ‘A’ star and his workrate off the ball the ‘reason’ why Gareth Southgate backs him as Mr reliable when it comes to representing his country.

James Maddison impresses and gets around the pitch in little pockets, is unlucky not to add a goal to his game, Jude Bellingham is breath-taking in possession, oozing class, his spider like legs seemingly getting him out of danger even with bodies around him when he receives the ball in the most uncomfortable of places. Nearest thing i've seen to the great Zinedine Zidane, as they did with ZZ, things done by Bellingham just look that much better.

John Stones has evolved into a perfect modern day centre half, he blocks everything and his distribution is good, a superb day all around for England’s players, Ivan Toney making a debut, looks like a real athlete, my first viewing in the flesh and ‘what a specimen’ I thought… I wonder if he ‘backed himself’ to get a first England cap?

As for Ukraine, their best player by a mile, is Oleksandr Zinchenko. He’s exceptional on the ball in that midfield, a position I thought he would play more often since joining Arsenal.

Another player I liked the look of, the experienced Stepanenko in the centre of the park beside him, whilst Everton left back Vitali Mykolenko didn’t do bad against Saka. He looks like he’s filled out a bit since moving to the Premier League and at 23 I believe his game will improve further in time.

The Verdict

England are doing what England should be doing, winning qualification matches, but let’s be honest, six points from the two trickiest teams in the group, is a start which provides hope and excitement still, that this England team can go on to achieve something more than their recent admiration.

The Southgate haters will harp on about performances, like a Maurico Pochettino or a Thomas Tuchel would instantly turn England into the Harlem Globetrotters, like hiring Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte would mean ‘this group of players’ will finally win something… But I still feel England have the right Manager, at the right time, in control of this exceptional talented group, to perhaps finally achieve that piece of silverware we all crave. In Germany 2024, wouldn’t that be a great place to do it?

The Teams

England: Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Ben Chilwell, Jude Bellingham (Conor Gallagher 85), Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice, Bukayo Saka, James Maddison (Jack Grealish 85), Harry Kane (Ivan Toney 81).

Ukraine: Anatolii Trubin, Oleksandr Karavaev (Vitaliy Buyalskyy 61), Oleksandr Svatok, Mykola Matviienko, Vitali Mykolenko (Eduard Sobol 61), Georgiy Sudakov, Taras Stepanenko (Yevhen Konoplanka 90), Oleksandr Zinchenko, Ruslan Malinovsky, Mykhailo Mudryk (Victor Tsygankov 61), Roman Yaremchuk (Artem Dovybyk 74).

5:00pm Kick Off. Sunday 26th March 2023, Wembley Stadium, London (att 83,947).

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