Romania’s players agreed to take the knee for the first time at the Riverside Stadium as a gesture of solidarity with their English hosts. As loud, angry boos rang out around the ground the Romanians must have wondered what they’d stumbled into here. What kind of weird, contorted, backwards kind of country is this England anyway? Didn’t they used to be someone? Welcome to England 2021. Divided, belligerent, set against itself – and reduced now by the formalities of a football match to debating the idea of “Englishness” until it falls apart at the seams.
This is England a week away from a de facto home Euros, two weeks away from the great unlocking after a year of angst-ridden isolation. This is England, and everything’s going to be OK. Probably.
Has there been a more fraught, muddled and downright weird buildup to an England tournament to date? Clearly not. The world itself has never been this punch-drunk while still attempting to stage major leisure industry events.
It isn’t Gareth Southgate’s fault that the schedule has been so brutal, that the players have been passed to him in a state of fatigue, that the country has managed to generate and encourage so many people who are still clearly confused by the meaning of words such as tolerance and equality. But this is where we find ourselves. At the end of this muddled, chancy 1‑0 defeat of Romania England have a week to go until their first Group D fixture against Croatia. They’re being booed by their own fans. The first team haven’t had a runout since March.
Jordan Henderson, Southgate’s great midfield hope, isn’t fit enough to play more than a half (and enacted a penalty kick abomination here). Southgate hasn’t blinked, has continued to speak with great clarity. But he will be entering this tournament with fingers crossed, and a sense of trusting to the winds.
First, the booing. Nothing was solved here despite Southgate’s own, very clear and respectful call for kindness. It will be there again at Wembley.
What to do with this now? There are issues with knee-taking. Nobody has to agree with anyone else about anything. You might feel this is not necessary, or believe that discrimination is overplayed, or – who knows – a good thing. You might feel there is something odd in football as an industry preaching about inequality, or men who earn 350 times the national wage in a country where people go hungry. These are points for discussion.
But the public booing of a simple anti-racism gesture is a shameful, hurtful act. Doing so to young men, your own players, who are regularly racially abused is doubly shameful. Pretending this has something to do with “keeping politics out”, or that creeping “Marxism” is a threat to your way of life in Britain (Conservative majority: 43) is cowardly and disingenuous.
It is worth remembering in the middle of all this that football is just an amplification of what is out there. If there are racists, boneheads and people without compassion at England football matches, this is because these people exist in England. The harm they do is not confined to, contained by, or even that relevant to football. Football has to live with it, because no other physical human activity offers this soapbox, this visible theatre of hate.
And in reality the people who need to answer for this level of dissonance and rage are those in power: governments of the past 20 years; a sickly strain in the British media; and all those diffuse clumps of intolerance and ignorance wherever they may be found.
There was also a football match at the Riverside – but not much of one. The starting team was another England B, another Duchess of Sandwich XI affair. It is pointless to criticise Southgate for this when he has full knowledge of his players’ levels of fatigue and readiness. There has never been a season, or indeed a football tournament quite like this.
But it is hard to avoid the feeling of a slight loss of focus. The 26-man squad has allowed a kind of lacuna for woolly thinking, the overmanning in some areas, the presence of injured “good blokes”, the use of pressed-men to pad the warmups. At the 1959 World Cup in Sweden England’s squad was joined by a businessman called “Chalwyn”, a friend of Stanley Rous who joined in training as it pleased him. Are we in Chalwyn territory here? These are still good players, England still a good team, and as such there were still positive to be drawn. Jack Grealish was willing and bold and fun, and won England’s decisive penalty with a clever piece of play. An induced foul, but also poor defending.
James Ward-Prowse’s free-kicks were accurate and menacing. Marcus Rashford showed some good movement and took a fine penalty.
Sam Johnstone made an incredible save from close range. Henderson appeared at half-time and ran around a bit. With zero goals in his 58 previous England games, he grabbed the ball from Dominic Calvert-Lewin as England were awarded another penalty on 77 minutes. Henderson took a poor kick that was saved.
And so on we go into the great unknown, the overwhelming excitement of a kind-of home Euros. There are no rules here. England have never looked so rushed before a tournament. But they are resourceful and talented; and in an odd kind of way all the more bonded by the hostility of a very audible group of their own fans.