For those of you looking at this tomorrow morning, I didn’t sneak back and add my prediction for the England match after the final whistle. A 3-0 win away to Andorra. The result alone says quite a lot, really, but there was much more to it than that. As has been noted elsewhere, Andorra, with ten men behind the ball, kicking away at the English midfield like lumberjacks with blunt axes, and tumbling around or time-wasting from more or less the first minute, hardly fitted the bill of “plucky underdogs”, but England were so devoid of, well, anything, that my sympathy for them didn’t take long to start festering. Rooney wasn’t interested in anything other than getting in a fight, Lennon’s delivery was absolutely shocking, Ashley Cole seemed incapable of even being able to control the ball properly, and Steven Gerrard’s passing from midfield was bad enough to make me start wondering whether he has issues with depth perception.
Against a motley collection of (in a fairly literal sense) butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, England were dismal. They were limited, in the first half, to a couple of shots from outside the penalty area, and the crowd were more than generous in only booing them off at half-time. If I’d spent over £500 on flights, transfers, a hotel room and spending money and witnessed that, half of their heads would have been on spikes before they could get back to the sanctity of the dressing room. In the pub in Brighton, we wondered idly whether the Andorrans could hold out for a 0-0 draw or, perhaps, sneak a goal on the break. No such luck. Ten minutes into the second half, Steven Gerrard scored, and that was that. Frankly, Gerrard’s celebrations were embarrassing. Well done Steven. You scored twice against a team with the clout and pulling power of a Conference South side. You must be very proud. There was one tiny ray of sunshine, which was the huge smile on David Nugent’s face as he drove the third goal in from several millimetres out. At least there was one person on the pitch that actually wanted to be there.
So, where do they stand? Results elsewhere in their group mean that they dropped a place to fourth, so some sort of justice was done, at least. The fact of the matter is that they need to improve ten-fold in order to get a result in Estonia in the summer, and let’s try to put matches against Croatia and Russia to the back of our minds for now. My suspicion is still that England will somehow do enough to qualify for these finals but, at the moment, they sure as hell don’t deserve it. The BBC have been more concerned with how “nervous” and “edgy” they were, but that is, frankly, irrelevant. They were indisciplined, unadventurous and badly organised. They (and by “they”, I mean all of them – the FA, the management and the players) deserve all the criticism that they will undoubtedly have lavished upon them tomorrow.
Everything that was missing from England’s performance this evening was on display at Windsor Park, where Northern Ireland came from a goal behind to beat Sweden 2-1 and go top of their group. David Healy, who scored two wonderful goals, is surely headed for better things. He scored a hat-trick against Liechenstein on Saturday but, strangely, has only scored eight times for poor old Leeds United this season. He plays his international football without fear and with enormous amounts of guile. If I was a Premiership manager looking to take a speculative gamble on a player from outside the top flight this summer, there are worse players that I could bet upon. Northern Ireland, then, leapfrog over Sweden, and stay four points clear of Spain, who were uninspiring again in beating Iceland 1-0. Can the Northern Irish get through? Hmm. They’ve still got to play Sweden and Spain away, but those two have still got to play each other once more too, so there’s still all to play for. They certainly couldn’t be in a better position than the one that they’re in now. Moreover, they care.
Finally, Scotland reverted to type by losing 2-0 to Italy in Bari tonight. The match became a face-off between the Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon and Italy’s Luca Toni. Despite Gordon pulling off a string of excellent saves, Toni won the battle, scoring both of Italy’s goals. Because France weren’t playing this evening, the Scots only drop to second place behind Ukraine, but their earlier defeat in Kiev is suddenly looking very expensive indeed. They have a tough trip to Paris to come, so we can rest assured that they’re likely to need full points from their home matches against Ukraine and Italy. As Alan Hansen might say, it’s a “big ask”. Also, Wales beat San Marino at a largely empty Millennium Stadium (“Match Of The Day” didn’t even mention it), and the Republic of Ireland breathed a little more air into the corpse of their campaign by beating Slovakia 1-0 at Croke Park. I can’t help but think that this is about as good as things are going to get for them under Steve Staunton.