England won this game in unconvincing fashion scoring twice. Still a month short of his 18th birthday, Wayne Rooney wrote himself into the record books as England's youngest ever scorer with his first goal in international football. Before Rooney's intervention, England were enjoying a re run of the difficult night they endured against the same opposition last season at Southampton.
The whole night had an awkward edge to it. England fans travelled despite being asked not to. A flag of St George was ceremoniously set on fire by home supporters at one end of the ground - during the Macedonia anthem. And England’s black players had to endure some disgraceful abuse from the home fans yet the national anthems were respected.
When England went 1-0 down to a sloppy goal of their own making things looked ripe for another international disaster. One clean strike from the youngest player on the pitch changed all that though Rooney did not quite do it all by himself. The brains behind the operation was Sven-Göran Eriksson, who belied his reputation for indecisiveness with the highly effective introduction of Emile Heskey at half time. Between them Eriksson, Heskey and Rooney changed the course of the game with a little help from David Beckham. The only mystery still to be cleared up is why England are getting themselves into these scrapes in the first place.
Michael Owen looked dangerous when the ball was at his feet, which was not often enough. He took up a good position when
Hargreaves put Ashley Cole behind the home defence on the left after 15 minutes, only for Cole's pull back from the byline to elude him. Sakiri, who managed to beat David Seaman direct from a corner in the 2-2 draw at Southampton, was given a surprising amount of space in which to run and used it shrewdly. Sol Campbell had to be at his agile best to prevent Sakir's defence-splitting pass reaching Gorgi Hristov after 20 minutes, but was caught out by Hristov's turn four minutes later, picking up the now familiar booking for going through the player from behind.
Campbell made a much more serious error of judgement for the goal that sent Skopje's City stadium wild just before the half hour. He was well positioned to cut out Vanco Trajanov's cross from the right, but opted bizarrely to stoop and head it when hoofing the ball clear looked a far better option. The ball squirmed beneath him, presenting Goran Pandev with a clear shot at goal. David James made an instinctive stop, but though he got his legs to Hristov's follow up he could not keep the ball out of the net. James must despair, it seems his predecessors enjoyed a solid defence where for him his defenders slumber through games presenting the opposition with chances.
Already being given the runaround by a West Brom player, England had managed to go a goal down to a former Barnsley player. Not just any former Barnsley player either. Hristov was the striker who unwisely offered the opinion that the women were much better looking in Macedonia.
As the first half drew to an end it was England who looked unflatteringly plain. David Beckham was unable to make any of his
is free-kicks count, Wayne Rooney struggled to get into the game and 35 minutes had elapsed before Hargreaves registered England's first shot worthy of the name. Goran Stavervski came much closer to scoring from a free-kick just before the interval, and although Owen obliged Petar Milosevski to make his first save of the game, a minute later Beckham summed up the scruffy nature of England's performance by becoming the second player booked for a foul on Hristov. The only hope for England appeared to lie in the knowledge that Macedonia had not only scored first in Southampton, but had twice surrendered leads to Turkey.
Despite playing Owen and Rooney up front far too many long balls were played, not into space but belted upfield where England had two forwards not known for holding the ball up. As a result far too much possession was conceded. Something had to change. Mr Eriksson gambled at half time by keeping off Lampard. If this was harsh on a midfielder who had not been conspicuously worse than anyone else, it looked even harsher on Heskey who was subjected to racial abuse when he first touched the ball. Within minutes, however, Heskey had silenced the crowd and Eriksson could congratulate himself on an inspired tactical switch.
Heskey went up front to partner Owen, and Rooney dropped back to just ahead of midfield. In the 53rd minute, Beckham lofted a pass from the centre circle on to Heskey's forehead, for the Liverpool player to knock down cleverly into space along the edge of the penalty area. That space was rapidly filled by Rooney, striding forward to clip the ball confidently past Milosevski to claim his place in history.
England never looked back and took the lead just after an hour when John Terry was brought down by Aguinaldo on controlling Beckham's pass in the penalty area. Beckham coolly despatched the penalty, before rather naughtily running to celebrate in front of the England fans, and Eriksson's gamble had succeeded to perfection. Beckham's fitness had been in doubt before the game, but this time the captain had delivered. Eriksson would also have found it much easier to replace Rooney with Heskey, whereas the combination of the pair of them produced the all-important equaliser. It was yet another poor performance from a team that looks so good on paper, full of players who look outstanding for their clubs yet who look shapeless and naďve in an England shirt. England did enough but have to begin to do better.
Milosevski, Stavrevski, Mitreski, Stojanovski, Simulikoski, Grozdanovski (Braga 56 mins), Trajanov, Pandev (Gjuzelov 48
mins), Sakiri, Naumoski, Hristov (Dimitrovski 88 mins).
Subs Not Used: Nikoloski, Kapinkovski, Georgievski, Kumbev.
James, G Neville, Terry, Campbell, A Cole, Beckham, Lampard (Heskey 46 mins), Butt, Hargreaves, Owen (Dyer 86 mins), Rooney (P Neville 74 mins).
Subs Not Used: Robinson, Upson, Bridge, J Cole. (Full Squad)
FYR Macedonia Goal: Hristov (28 mins)
England Goals: Rooney (53 mins), Beckham (63 mins)
FYR Macedonia Cautions: Naumoski, Braga, Hristov, Sakiri
England Cautions: Campbell, Beckham
Referee: Frank De Bleeckere (Belgium)