I stood in the queue for a drink at half time at the St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton last night and in speaking to a woman that was (like me) in attendance on Saturday when England beat a very poor Bulgaria 4-0 at Wembley, I said to her “this is the best England team I’ve seen in my lifetime”.
OK so five years ago last nights opponents Kosovo wasn’t even considered a country by FIFA but long gone are the days of us big wig English fans disrespecting micro-nations due to them being the size of Coventry. Unlike Iceland (who have beat us before), Kosovo is actually bigger than Birmingham, a step up in class perhaps? Certainly (like Iceland) they deserved total respect for the way they played and for the way they took on a mighty English team by playing football the right way. Many bigger nations have failed to do this against us in the past and we have often been frustrated because of it.
Tuesday nights performance by England was a bit Bonnie & Clyde. Criminal in some areas, heroic in others, the fact that an early error (these things happen) lead to a Kosovo goal ensured we would enjoy an open game with England forced to attack as Kosovo were by no means content to just sit on their lead.
I remember a time when this match might have been a banana skin. Clear favourites going behind as nerves kick in. Anyone that remembers a similar occasion when England played Macedonia in Southampton way back in 2002 and David Seaman let an Artim Sakiri corner loft over his head will understand where I’m coming from. That day we drew a match that we was expected to win easily 2-2. We drew that match with David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Gary Neville all in the team.
These days however things seem different. Yes we still get the slanderous ‘not good enough’ comments from ignorant journalists who latch on to any tiny bit of negativity they can, we get a huge amount of criticism from social media and the couch potato fan. But these days we are getting more and more people falling in love with the way England play, and nonetheless enjoying the way England play are the players themselves, these days it seems they are proud to play for their country, enjoying every minute of international week and catching up with friends and playing in a way where they feel they can express themselves to the best of their ability under Gareth Southgate. And express themselves they certainly do.
Since the World Cup in 2018 we have certainly seen a positive movement towards the national team and the way England now play is testament to the way Southgate has gone about his business.
OK it does look like they have defensive frailties and because of the way England want to play they often expose their defenders and in playing out from the back they have on occasion (like last night) been caught out. But by playing the way they do England are also more of a threat to opposition defenders and I wonder if international football has a better front three right now than Sancho, Sterling and Kane who are all on the very top of their game?
England with scare got the job done last night simply by having the pace, power and ability to outscore their opponents. The world class trio of Raheem Sterling key in four of the goals scored, Sancho playing a part in three whilst Kane netted his fourth in two games significantly the difference. In midfield they were unthrilling but workmanlike with praise to the industry of Jordan Henderson in particular, in defence sometimes exposed but with room for improvement. It certainly wasn’t Southgate’s first choice back four.
With 19 goals and maximum points from four European Championship Qualifying games so far we’ll no doubt get the old moans of ‘they still can’t do it in tournaments’ but this is a team now that has reached a semi-final of the World Cup and one that reached the four team finals in the UEFA Nations League all be it finishing third following earlier victories over Spain and Croatia.
Qualification for the 2020 Euros may now be a formality as it usually is but the way England are doing it right now more pleasing on the eye and more exciting to see is the biggest enlightenment of all.
England with its quality in attack now have a real chance of going well next summer and with the final at Wembley would it not be the perfect time to see this team of fine footballers deliver when it matters most?
If they don’t no doubt the haters will be out as usual, but if they do they’ll be those like me that said “I told you so” as this team is special, it certainly has the makings of one that could make history in winning silverware and by continuing to do us proud due to the way they so attractively play.