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Opinion

As a Newcastle United fan, a strange feeling to be inside Wembley for England 1 Croatia 0

4 weeks ago
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After writing an article about the twenty five years of hurt I’ve personally experienced as a Newcastle United and England fan (read HERE), the editor asked if I could do a write up after England’s first game of Euro 2020, which ended England 1 Croatia 0.

It would be my first experience of proper international tournament football and the first game I’d attended since England walloped Montenegro 7-0 back in November 2019. It’s been a long year and a half.

I found out I had a ticket for this match on Thursday as I was one of a few hundred people that got lucky in a third ballot. These were the tickets that people who won the first two ballots hadn’t opted to buy. The friend I go to games with wasn’t as lucky, so I decided I would do a solo day trip to Wembley and back on Sunday.

I live in Somerset and the drive is only two and a half hours to a little estate I like to park in on the outskirts of London. I made arrangements for my mother to have my son and I double checked I had everything in order. I found and fully charged my power bank, I checked and double checked all the requirements for entry to the stadium. We had to provide evidence of a lateral flow test or both vaccinations. I was lucky enough to have both vaccinations and had registered for the NHS app which evidences this.

My entry slot was 13:00 to 13:30. This was lucky as I’d heard some people were having to turn up as early as three hours before the game. This is a sensible precaution to limit social interaction but a nightmare if you’re one of the unlucky ones sitting for the equivalent of two games in a near empty stadium waiting to watch the one game you came for.

I received an email on the Saturday to say no bags bigger than A4 would be allowed in the stadium. Backpacks have pretty much been banned in recent years anyway and must be stored in units outside the stadium. I have a small satchel that I thought may meet the requirements but even that was too big. As I was doing a day trip, I needed to bring the power bank to ensure my phone didn’t die as the tickets are held on an app. I also have the directional sense of a blindfolded toddler coming off a spinning teacup so would need Google Maps to get me about.

I wanted to take my sunglasses as there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I would need my face mask, wallet and phone and ideally a book for all the tube journeys. Unfortunately, the satchel was too big, and none of my shorts had deep enough pockets so I would either have to take my girlfriend’s handbag or wear jeans. As accepting as the world is becoming, I opted for the jeans and left the book behind.

I dropped off my son in good time and was on my way to London at 9am, Sunday morning, but had a couple of setbacks and ended up a little behind my schedule. Once out of my car, it didn’t take me long to identify that I need to invest in some cargo shorts, 25 degree heat in jeans was unbearable. My legs sweated all day and I could feel all my little Billy Miller’s boiling away in their sack.

Although I’m a nightmare with directions, I’m fairly astute with a tube map, but at each train change I experienced long waits and I realised that I was going to be cutting my entry time extremely fine. At one point I considered an Uber but felt that on a game day the traffic would be insane and that would be too great a gamble. I put my faith in the trains but even as I sped along on my final leg it was approaching 13:30 and I was starting to panic that I would be refused entry.

The route I was on was going to take me to Wembley Central much quicker than I could get across to Wembley Park, which would have got me closer but would have meant a line change and would have undoubtedly been ridiculously busy. I opted instead to travel to Wembley Central and run.

England Shirt BadgeWhen I got off the train it was 13:33 and I was already late for my slot. Google Maps said it would be an 18 minute walk to the stadium. I ran the whole way and managed to get there in a third of that time. At the stadium I desperately asked stewards where Entrance 1 was and was told to keep going around the stadium. Another minute of jogging later and I was at the entry point. I loaded up my ticket and went to the first steward. By this point I was dripping sweat, coughing and probably looking like your archetypal Covid sufferer.

I tried to show the first steward my ticket and he asked if I had my lateral flow test results. I told him I’d had both vaccines and he gestured for me to move onto the next steward before I could open up the NHS app. I showed the next fella my ticket and braced myself for a comment on the fact I was there fifteen minutes after my allocated time, but I was waved through again. That was easy. They let me in after my slot and took my word on passing the vaccine requirement. I should have brought my bag along and told them it was only A4 sized.

My seat was at the back of the bottom tier, in the corner. On my row there were three other blokes, all alone and all spaced out. There was nobody on the row behind me. Looking around it appeared that everybody in my block had travelled alone apart from one group of lads. I later saw lots of comments on Facebook from people who had been successful in the ballot whilst their travel buddies hadn’t. One dad posted that his sixteen year old son and he had different cap levels and therefore had qualified for different tickets so had been separated. I can’t imagine it’s been easy sorting out these ballots but surely people in the same travel groups should enter ballots together, especially those with the same/similar cap levels.

I’d read about lots of families where one person out of four had got tickets and therefore wouldn’t be attending. A family would be a bubble so if one or four of them attend it shouldn’t make a huge difference and maybe could have allowed for greater capacities if thought out well but it’s easy for me to sit here and say that.

Despite the low attendance the atmosphere was decent. It took me ages to locate the Croatians. It wasn’t until their team was announced that I managed to identify a block of what looked like a few hundred fans cheering and waving their flags at the other end of the stadium. We definitely had the home advantage.

The first ten minutes or so we looked quality. Sterling drove forward and played the ball into Foden’s path. He weaved onto his left foot and hit the post. Not long after Sterling, Mount and Kane worked a nice move, but Sterling was tackled in the six-yard box as he looked to cut back. There was an ambitious call for a penalty from the crowd. Kalvin Phillips struck a solid volley from the resulting corner which was comfortably saved.

Maybe Southgate knew what he was doing after all. I had predicted that he would be overly defensive and would employ a couple of sitting midfielders and he did. He also had a right back employed at left back and had chosen some bloke in goal whose gloves appeared to be attached to his elbows. There was no sign of Grealish who had been our standout player in the two friendlies. But maybe all this wouldn’t equate to boring football.

Gareth SouthgateIt did. After that first ten minutes, the entertainment ended. The rest of that half was horrendous. One group of fans about twenty metres to my right had spotted Shearer and Lampard and were chanting ‘Shearer, Shearer, give us a wave’ instead of paying attention to the ‘action’ on the pitch.

The second half was equally dull, and the fans were starting to turn a little. Every time we looked to build some pressure the ball would be played backwards, and the stadium would be filled with a collective groan.

Then, from nothing, Kalvin Phillips escaped a challenge and played the ball into Sterling’s run, and he stumbled through and managed to sneak the ball under the keeper and into the back of the net.

The release of euphoria made it all worthwhile. The stress and cost of getting down to and across London, my sweat drenched jeans and my fried Billy Miller juniors. It was all worth it to see fans hugging and bouncing and yelling and cheering. The stadium erupted and you’d have never thought that it was less than a quarter full.

That would be it in terms of footballing entertainment. There was a worry when Kane went down and was surrounded by medical staff with stretchers being jogged around the pitch. Fortunately, he got up and continued playing.

After that nothing really happened. There were a couple of overhit passes and looping deflections that I was worried Pickford would struggle to collect at head height but Croatia didn’t carry much threat. A note on Pickford. I don’t understand the media obsession with his distribution. Yes, I am biased and no, I don’t watch many Everton games.

However, I’ve been to a lot of England games since 2018 and the amount of times I’ve seen him launch long balls straight out of play has been ridiculous. In the first half of this match, he primarily pumped the ball towards the smallest player in our front line, Sterling. In the second half he resorted to what I was used to and bypassed all the players and aimed for people in the crowd instead.

Big well done to Kalvin Phillips who was a terrier in the centre of the pitch. Maybe it’s unfair to label him a defensive midfielder as there is so much to his game. I still feel we don’t need him and Rice though. I would opt to drop Rice for Grealish for the Scotland game or if Southgate has to play Rice then swap out Mason Mount.

Singing along to Football’s Coming Home with thousands of other fans at the final whistle was obviously enjoyable, if a little presumptuous. I basically paid a fortune to cheer once and have a glorified karaoke. But what a feeling it was being back at a live event.

After the match I loitered for ten minutes to let the stadium clear out a bit and I stood and clapped the players as they wandered around the pitch acknowledging the fans in each section of the stadium. As I started to make my departure, I peered up at Shearer’s perch and heard a group of fans chanting, ‘Shearer, Shearer, Shearer’ from the tier above me. I added my voice to theirs and stood alone chanting up at the man that got me into football, England and Newcastle during Euro 96. It was a great moment of symmetry.

When I got home it was nearly 10pm and I stuck on the news. The match report was full of fawning admiration for Southgate’s game plan and the player’s performances. I checked the match stats to see if maybe I had been a little judgemental during the game but sure enough, we had only seen 16 shots (4 on target) evenly split between the two sides.

Our 2 shots on target for us meant that we had had one each half. Croatia edged us slightly for possession.

I did also hear that it was our first ever opening European Championship win so we can’t really grumble. It’s a win that gives us a great platform to top the group, especially if Croatia get something against the Czech Republic. Although finishing second place and playing Spain, Sweden, Poland or Slovakia rather than France, Portugal or Germany would probably be beneficial. I quite fancy a Wembley, last 16 tie against Deutschland though. That’d be tasty.

I waited anxiously today to see if my luck would hold and I would get a ticket for Scotland in the third ballot but, alas, it wasn’t to be. Tickets are secured for the Czech Republic though, so it’ll be back down to Wembley next Tuesday, hoping for another win after this England 1 Croatia 0 victory.

You can follow the author on Twitter @billymerlin

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