September 8, 2014. About 9:30pm. That’s when England qualified for Euro 2016.
Basel, Switzerland was the setting. There was no drama, no need to keep an eye on results elsewhere, no need for a late goal to seal it, no cause for fingernails to be chewed off. On the contrary, there were nine more qualifying games to go, taking in such footballing powerhouses as Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania.Home and away games against San Marino were also a lingering concern.
Two second half goals from Danny Welbeck were all that was required to claim victory in Switzerland, England’s toughest game in a qualifying group where the top two went through automatically. One game in, and England were on the plane, as it were, 21 months before the tournament was due to start in earnest. At 24 teams, the biggest European Championships ever was practically open invite – to everyone apart from the Scots – and England had booked it, packed it and were ready to **** off.
What followed for then manager Roy Hodgson and his team was an almost pointless procession across some of the lesser known European capitals to face third, fourth and, in San Marino’s case, fifth rate opposition. By qualification’s end, England were ten for ten. A phenomenal achievement, had they faced someone trickier than the Swiss.
This World Cup qualifying campaign in which England again finished top of the group, well clear, if we are being honest, of any sizeable threat from Slovakia or Slovenia was more of the same, if not quite as emphatic.
Much to the dismay of the England manager Gareth Southgate, the FA and the British press, qualification was met with a whimper by the majority of fans, with accusations that England’s legendary support were losing faith in their national team. The fact that it has been over 18 months since anything resembling a decent performance seemingly lost on all concerned.
The Daily Mirror’s chief football writer John Cross claimed on Twitter that international football was alive and well.
Tell me international football doesn’t matter
— John Cross (@johncrossmirror) June 10, 2017
After Ireland’s heart-stopping win against Wales, meaning the Boys in Green booked their World Cup play-off place ahead of their hosts and near neighbours, The Times’ chief football writer, Henry Winter, tweeted that anyone who dare suggest fans were tiring of the international break need only look at the fans inside the Cardiff City Stadium.
People who say international football doesn’t matter any more should just look at the Irish & Welsh players and fans. It matters the world.
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) October 9, 2017
What both fail to realise, is that attendances for England games at Wembley have fallen. And are continuing to fall. Viewing figures for the Slovenia and Lithuania games were the second worst and worst of the qualifying campaign, respectively. The evidence is clear; England fans are losing interest.
The reason though is not necessarily what some claim it to be. The Premier League is so strong now, so action packed, that the collective groan can be heard around the country when it shuts down for a fortnight to make way for England’s tricky visit to Malta to face an accountant, a plumber’s mate and a guy who made 19 appearances for Luton Town.
But England’s fans are made up of much more than this and always were. Look at the banners inside of Wembley or draped over the advertising hoardings in the away end in deepest, darkest Vilnius and you will see the names of the likes of Northampton Town, Lincoln City and Rochdale. Fans of these sides welcome the international break.
The reason is boredom. And not just with the performances. We had Roy Hodgson for four years and three tournaments, remember.
The issue England fans have right now is that qualifying has been a breeze, partly down to the fact that we are (somehow) seeded in pot one, and partly down to good old luck. In the Euro 2016 qualifying draw, England got Switzerland when we could have had Belgium. We got Estonia when we could have had Wales.
The same can be said of this qualifying campaign. For the second seeds, we got Slovakia when we could have had Italy, or even Iceland!
Rewind back exactly 20 years to October 1997. England arrived in Rome to face Italy, knowing a draw would see them qualify for the World Cup in France the following summer. What followed was a performance that has, quite rightly, gone down in history and is still fondly remembered almost a quarter of a century later.
Paul Ince captained the Three Lions that night and delivered one of the outstanding individual performances in recent memory. Ince, who played at the 1998 World Cup and the European Championships in England two years earlier, counts it as his favourite night in an England shirt.
All this from a World Cup qualifier, and a 0-0 to boot.
Four years earlier, England hadn’t been so lucky. Needing a result against the Dutch to qualify for USA 1994, England fell short. There was incident, there was controversy, there was even a documentary in which England manager Graham Taylor stated, quite categorically, that he does not like orange!
Sadly, there has been very little of it since. Yes, there was Croatia in 2007, but that was an embarrassment, so it doesn’t count.
Fans need those occasions. They need those moments and those matches that will be talked about for years to come. Irish and Welsh fans just got one. It was the occasion that made it; the opposition, the rivalry, the stakes. Not the fact that fans were treated to a week off from watching Derry City or Cefn Druids.
Wales fans will be heartbroken, and rightly so. To be so close and miss out is devastating. But they’ll be debating the campaign long after England shuffle away from St. Petersburg following another dismal tournament.
Not good enough for the tournament, but too good for qualifying. That is England’s predicament right now, and that is why fans are losing interest. We’re like the international equivalent of Robert Earnshaw.
When the draw is made for the next European Championships, don’t rejoice when we get Slovakia or Ukraine from pot B. Pray for Ireland. Pray for Wales. Pray for Holland.
Anyone but Iceland.