There was one luminous moment on an otherwise frantic, and frankly quite weird night for England’s footballers at the Riverside Stadium. With 57 minutes gone an odd-job front-line produced a fine surging move to create a first England goal for Bukayo Saka.
Up to that point their opponents had been mean, bruising and, let’s face it, quite annoying. Austria’s footballers have one of the great sporting nicknames. Das Team is both accurate and appropriately free of frills. Das Team is a safe, functional thing. Das Team runs and kicks and presses together. Das Team also has not won a game at a major tournament since 1990.
But for an hour they provided a bruising, bitty test, a bothersome bunch of footballers prone to what can only be described as Scheisshausery. Jack Grealish in particular was on the end of a 70-minute buffeting, the Riverside treated to a traditional Austrian high-summer game of Let’s kick Jack.
But Grealish was also a part of that one moment of light as he dropped deep, laid the ball back to Harry Kane and made a driving run through the centre. Kane pinged a fine curving pass to Jesse Lingard on the right. His touch was perfectly weighted back into the run of Grealish. Fittingly it was a scything Austrian lunge that took the ball to Saka, who finished well from a tight angle.
It was a lovely moment for a 19-year-old who seems both oddly boyish and startlingly mature in his manner, his decision-making, his focus. Saka isn’t a flashy player. He has little that is gratuitous in his game. He makes good choices, plays without fear, is mobile and precise and smart. How far can he rise?
So there was that. Because otherwise this was a migrainous, draining occasion, a bad trip of an England game. It ended with Trent Alexander-Arnold walking off looking devastated by an injury to his right leg. It began with what threatens to become the soundtrack to our own fractured summer, the booing of both sets of players taking the knee.
The Riverside Stadium had more than 8,000 fans around its single- tier stands. It looked lovely from the aerial drone shots, cantilevered edges fading into the summer mist off the water. Then, out of the blue, came the boos as England and Austria players took the knee – not “isolated voices” but a concerted and heartfelt jeering, drowned out by more widespread applause.
Is there a more accurate, or more depressing image of the current state of toxic discourse: two parts of a stadium celebrating their presence outside on a summer evening by simultaneously clapping and booing a gesture in support of tolerance?
Boos were heard as England and Austria’s players took the knee. Photograph: Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA/Getty Images
It is true that people may choose to boo whatever they want, that not everyone shares the same politics. But it is still a shocking, pointed and political act in itself.
To publicly boo players making a symbolic statement in support of racial equality makes it clear you have a problem with this as a principle. To boo the knee when the players on that pitch are a mixed, racially diverse bunch of young men who know of what they speak, is more than simply boorish and discourteous.
It is an embarrassment to the occasion and to a country struggling and at times failing to come to terms with its own very present past. And please, spare us the nonsense about creeping Marxism. We have a comfortable majority Conservative government in this country. We are some way short of a hard left coup.
So, football then. On paper this was an intriguing England team. Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice, combined age 39, is surely England’s youngest midfield duo of the modern age. Bellingham made his first start and looked, as ever, like a major talent.
Lingard was given a kind of zombie game, asked to go out and act as a pre-Euros fluffer for those who have taken his spot. Southgate had spoken about the wonderful character and commitment of those asked to do this. Lingard did his duty with grace. But it seems, frankly, a bit much.
More worryingly England looked open in the first 10 minutes. Twice Austria were able to surge through the central areas, an unusual occurrence against this mature Southgate England, where so much care and caution has gone into stiffening the rump of the team. Bang goes that more progressive midfield pivot come the real thing.
There were one or two slick moments, some brief sparks from Saka and Grealish. Kane kept crashing into Lingard’s space, playing nine and also ten, dropping deep where he wasn’t needed. And just before the end Alexander-Arnold could be seen wandering around the edge of the pitch, warmly applauded but clearly distraught. England have another of these games on Sunday. It is to be hoped they can get to that much-needed week’s rest without further trauma.
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