Rarely can a game of International football have been played in such conditions. It felt more like those great days of the FA Cup 3rd round when giantkilling was always possible. All the ingredients were there, the big name stars playing in unfamiliar surroundings. The crowded, passionate (inadequate) stadium. A team of sub standard and bit part players motivated to Herculean efforts. Two central defenders absent and best of all, a pitch that was the consistency of a Delia Smith Chocolate mousse. Sadly there was also another reminder of the past, a disgraceful cacophony of racial abuse aimed at Cole and Heskey both of whom conducted themselves superbly. Both have already experienced such treatment in the Champions League this year.
If the conditions were bad, the portents were worse. It was at this stage four years ago that Paul Ince lost his head and England fell apart against a Sweden side featuring a then unknown Freddie Ljunberg. Weeks later Glenn Hoddle was on his
way and the popularist rise of Kevin Keegan began. That England ground out a result under such conditions bodes very well
for the future.
The team played under an aura of tension and pressure caused more by the circling packs of Tabloid journalists, than any lack of self belief. The International team is a focus for huge attention these days but the numbers of feature writers on this trip was remarkable. It appears that the cyclical nature of the hacks has turned once more. Sven has been canonised, then pilloried throughout his reign. England were world beaters in the autumn of last year, yet inept in the spring build up to the World Cup. Considered guaranteed winners for 6 days in the summer, yet toothless and sterile at the main event.
Thankfully on this occasion the players were not about to let their World Cup hangover affect their autumn qualification fixtures. The players demonstrated the heart and will to win that denied the press their whip hand and have returned home with the 3 points required. The FA meanwhile have rightly complained to Uefa about the racial abuse the players had to suffer and the baton wielding policing in the stadium. While the governing body is busy looking at those issues, they should also consider a minimum standard of pitch be required for International games.
The game itself began badly for England and then got worse. The first half was awful, England attempting to play pretty football better suited to the tended turf of the Champions League than this Mud pie of a surface. Beckham was especially guilty of over elaboration. Scholes, the latest player consigned to the left side, seemed unlikely to get his kit muddy so isolated was he. So, it was left to the steely edge of the side to shine but even there England had problems, Nicky Butt and Steven Gerrard managing to get in each others way as often as the oppositions. With the midfield dropping deep to protect the back four Owen and Heskey became isolated. Every clearance was a struggle to hold on to and slowly Slovakia began to make possession tell. Twice Robert Vittek caused problems only for Southgate to recover well. Nemeth, an unremarkable player so far in his Middlesborough career, seemed especially motivated, twisting his way through before Gerrard dealt with the threat robustly. England's inability to clear their lines led directly to the opening goal. Gerrard allowing a deep cross to come over which missed everyone bar the player Ashley Cole was supposed to mark. He headed the ball back across the six yard box and Nemeth finished. Angry words were exchanged in the England defence.
Almost immediately Beckham wastefully drilled a free kick into the wall and Butt saw a shot fly just wide. Slovakia though, had the scent of an upset and came flying into their challenges. Gary Neville and Paul Scholes both falling victim, Scholes then lost his head and charged about attempting to scythe down anyone in a blue shirt before Beckham 'had a word'. Some tough tackling back from Heskey set a good example of controlled aggression. The Liverpool player seemed to have a real taste for the fight and worked far harder than has become typical. It was his contribution that allowed Southgate a firm header which the keeper did well to hold. Typically England's showpiece moment of the half came
from Beckham. A swift turn and chip which just cleared the bar was about the only moment of real quality in the whole half from him.
With England's pathetic record in the second half of games the situation may have seemed dire. But where England have faded and failed in recent fixtures, a new purpose was injected in the dressing room. The second half saw a more compact England play a simpler game. Passes were shorter, more support was offered to the front two and Scholes was moved to a more central position. England had worked out that long hoofs would not get them back into the game. The first 10 minutes of the second half saw more chances than the whole first 45. The best of them seeing Owen swipe the ball wide of near post when the chance seemed to require his customary curl to the far side. Beckham was fortunate to stay on the pitch
after a two footed lunge somewhere in the vicinity of the ball, right in full view of the referee. Though there was greater forward momentum, the Slovaks were still fighting, Nemeth turning his clubmate Southgate about as if on skates, saw a firm shot well saved by Seaman. The Slovaks re-doubled their efforts to stop England and paid the price, a foul on Scholes giving England a free kick. A recent Fifa report praised England's set piece play with very good reason. Beckham curled the kick in with players running across the flight of the ball. Whether Owen touched it or just bemused the keeper by his very presence only he knows. What is beyond doubt is that without his distraction the keeper would have made the save, with Owen coming in he gambled to his right, the ball did not deviate from it's path and flew in to his left. Both Owen and Beckham celebrated as if they were the scorer, though later Owen claimed not to have touched the ball.
Slovakia responded through Vittek causing an almighty goalmouth scramble more typically witnessed on a Sunday morning. England needed to make a change and Sven withdrew the tiring and recently booked Gerrard for Dyer and soldiered on for the win. Heskey closed down a dallying defender and Scholes thumped the ball across goal the chance came. There is a Slovak defender now suffering recurring nightmares about the disastrous way the ball squirmed under his foot and popped up right in front of Owen. It was a classy piece of opportunism from Owen, a real strikers goal he anticipated it might happen and headed firmly in when the chance came. Where England seemed to be bogged down, now they were flying. Sven, wanting to ensure victory moved to strengthen the team, withdrawing Owen for Hargreaves. But some habits die hard. England have long specialised in tense finishes, conjuring a draw instead of a win through sitting back and they did it again here. There was time for several desperate challenges, Nicky Butt enhancing his reputation further in the 4 minutes of extra time and for a marvellously comic appearance by Alan Smith totalling 7 seconds at the death.
For years countries like Italy and Germany have dealt with these kind of fixtures with ease. Now it may be that England will be able to swagger into a foreign land, play poorly and still win. It may seem overly simplistic, but games like this hard fought victory would have taught the players more about their potential than the performance in Munich. Winning when you are expected to win, despite everything being stacked against you, is a tough skill to learn. Emerging victorious from Slovakia indicates that long term success can be achieved.
Konig, Petras, Karhan, Hlinka, Dzurik, Zeman, Pinte (Kozley 89 mins), Nemeth, Leitner, Janocko (Mintal 89 mins),
Vittek (Reiter 81 mins).
Subs Not Used: Bucek, Cisovsky, Michalik, Klimpl.
Seaman, G Neville, Southgate, Woodgate, Ashley Cole, Beckham, Gerrard (Dyer 77 mins), Scholes, Butt, Owen (Hargreaves 86 mins), Heskey (Smith 90 mins).
Subs Not Used: James, Mills, Ehiogu, Vassell. (Full Squad)
Slovakia Goal: Nemeth (24 mins)
England Goals: Beckham (65 mins), Owen (82 mins)
Slovakia Cautions: Vittek, Leitner, Zeman
England Cautions: Gerrard, Scholes
Referee: D Messina (Italy)