Songs of hate almost obscure triumph of Roy Hodgson’s tactical tweak
Retro triumphalism of England fans overshadows robust display against Scotland that proved worth of Jack Wilshere’s new role
England fans during the International friendly at Celtic Park last night. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/Pa
After all the talk of passion and ancestral heat, the latest meeting of international football’s original Adam and Eve was both a little more and a little less than a run-of the mill friendly. Wrapped up in a fevered atmosphere soured by some retro poison from England’s travelling fans – the unwelcome dredging-up of the IRA and the marching of that theme around the away end for most of the first half – this was a measured, occasionally error-strewn, competitively intense friendly settled by goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and two from Wayne Rooney, with Andrew Robertson replying for Scotland.
Despite the occasional quiet spell it was still an undeniably urgent occasion and a step-up from the torpor of the first half against Slovenia in England’s previous – allegedly – competitive fixture. International football has grown accustomed to apologising for itself in recent years, with even tournament qualification reduced at times to a listless, tetchy business, endured like a parental dinner date in between club football’s glistening all-you-can-eat buffet. This, though, was a distinct occasion in its own right from the moment the first boos rang around Celtic Park 40 minutes before kick-off as England’s players ran out to warm up.
This is a great rambling, steeply-tiered noise-funnel of a stadium, decked out for the night with flags of Doncaster and Barnsley and Macclesfield in an unusually animated England end. Rule Britannia, England’s fans sang confusingly as a relentless assault of noise – boos, bellows, the screech of the bagpipes – crackled through the firework smoke. It was wonderful, engrossing theatre before a ball had even been kicked.
At which point, a game of football broke out: cue for the shared noise to be replaced by more or less continuous droning about the IRA from England’s end. This was accompanied, weirdly, by the official supporters’ band, cheerfully soundtracking a mass raking-over of decades of hate and murder with their parping horns. In their defence the band were simply playing the tune: the England end added the lyrics. But in a long line of moments over the last few years when the band really should have stopped playing, this was perhaps the most compelling to date.
For all that the atmosphere inside Celtic Park was relatively contained for anybody with memories of the 1980s when this fixture felt less like a football match, more a kind of controlled hate-bomb explosion, an occasion of apparently irresolvable ugliness. Times have changed. The heat has gone out of that particular pocket of trapped rage. Rule Britannia, F**k the IRA, God Save the Queen (four times in the first half): here this felt like simply gleeful dimwittery, an internet-age hostility, all hot air and free-floating poison. There has been a notion around that this match should be reinstated as an annual occasion but England’s fans did their best here to argue otherwise.
On the pitch it was a more upbeat occasion. Before Scotland unwound either side of half-time there was also a degree of intensity that has been missing from England’s last three qualifiers (thank heavens for financially motivated Tuesday night mid-season friendlies).
Plus this was again a relatively junior England team with only 20 caps shared between four of the back five, for whom the challenge was less about heart and spleen and spine and more about applying successfully a system that is beginning to bite for England.
Hodgson should be applauded for retaining that greenhorn diamond midfield on an occasion that presented, in its early intensity, a genuine straining at the stitches of the post-World Cup recovery programme. The only real innovation in this team since the traumas of the summer, the internal mechanics of Roy’s Diamond were examined here by opponents willing to shadow Jack Wilshere in his deeper role, to test his robustness and mobility, the ability to protect as well as pass it.
In the early moments Steven Naismith was the player closest to Wilshere who twice pulled away from his marker with an encouraging certainty. Hodgson has often been pilloried as a tactical roundhead but Wilshere’s strolling enforcer role has been a quietly revolutionary tweak, the first time in recent memory – barring the odd experiment with David Beckham in the “quarterback” role – that England’s midfield has been anchored by a pure passer rather than a runner or a tackler. Wilshere has responded with a growing confidence and here he made the opening goal with 36 minutes gone, gliding a lovely cross on to the head of Oxlade-Chamberlain who finished like a poacher between the centre-backs.
Celtic Park was silenced again as Rooney scored England’s second at the start of the second half, heading in after some poor defending from a set piece. And really this was a twin-track night: encouraging for England, with the under-25 brigade – Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and the full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw – impressing. While off the pitch a night of unbound enthusiasm at Celtic Park unspooled into expensively ticketed gloom for the home fans, doubly assailed here by £60-a-head match tickets and the fond, friendly songs of hate of the travelling fans.
The game ended on an upswing as Andy Robertson’s excellent goal was followed by a second for Rooney, who capped a fine England performance by performing an unexpected cartwheel. History does not record whether Bobby Charlton did the same on the occasion of his own 46th goal for England.