England have gone from being fuelled by the goodwill of a nation to hearing stirrings of discontent and grumblings about conservatism within the space of 12 months. This time last year, Gareth Southgate’s England had opened a delayed Euro 2020 Finals with victory over Croatia at Wembley before riding a wave of euphoria to their first major final in 55 years, losing agonisingly on penalties to Italy.
Fast forward to the present day and England inhabit a rather world-weary environment, with both players and supporters perhaps suffering from football fatigue and Southgate’s squad under the microscope amid fears they have not kicked on as hoped. The backdrop to these murmurings has been three distinctly underwhelming performances in their Uefa Nations League campaign to date, starting with defeat in Hungary, a point rescued by Harry Kane’s late penalty in Germany before a goalless draw in the “behind closed doors” game against Italy at Molineux on Saturday.
Foden faces late fitness check for Hungary tie England players jeered for taking a knee in HungaryHungary to play matches behind closed doors after racist behaviour of fans at England game No goals from open play. Precious little in the way of inspiration, excitement or energy. England have lacked any sort of ‘X Factor’.
This is why Southgate and England need a victory, preferably a convincing one, when the fans flock in to fill Molineux in the return fixture with the Hungarians on Tuesday.
The Football Association will also be hoping the game passes off without incident after a chequered history of crowd behaviour in recent games between the countries. England’s opening Nations League game in Budapest was marred by some Hungarian fans booing visiting players taking the knee.
Those fans numbered over 20,000 in total as they exploited a loophole in Uefa regulations that allowed children accompanied by adults to attend what was meant to be a behind-closed-doors game as punishment for racist and homophobic behaviour during Euro 20202.
The booing followed on from incidents in September last year when, because the game was under Fifa jurisdiction, Hungarian fans were allowed to attend a World Cup qualifier in Budapest. England players were racially abused, resulting in a two-match stadium closure for Hungary, with one game suspended. The following month Hungary fans clashed with police at Wembley then booed the taking the knee, which saw their fans banned by Fifa from being present at the country’s next game, against Poland, as a result.
‘England still hugely over-reliant on Kane’
Context must be applied to the current situation when assessing both Southgate and England’s current standing. For all the attempts to add the gloss of competition to the Nations League fixtures, England’s players have understandably looked leg weary, in some cases exhausted, at the end of a gruelling season.
There is only so much they can give and many tanks look empty. Even the most consummate and dedicated professional could be forgiven for taking a brief glance towards the beach, if only for a second.