Result: England 2-1 Nigeria (International Friendly)
Venue: Wembley Stadium (Saturday 2nd June 2018, 5.15pm)
Finally, after eleven whole months, the end of the season is within touching distance but first there comes a duo of International clashes to sign off with. The first of which (this very one, of course) has been in the planning for a fair while now, pretty much from when it was announced, in fact. I’d been keeping a visit to Wembley back for an England home game I could actually get to and, after what seemed like forever, they finally had a game scheduled for a Saturday afternoon which met all the things necessary for a nice, easy trip. Well in theory, anyway.
Blog regular Dan had sorted out the match tickets months in advance, whilst I’d been left in charge of sorting out the travel side of things. All looked good to go upon our arrival in Manchester during the mid-morning of a warm, sunny Summer’s day, though we were given a brief scare when a train to Euston was announced as cancelled, but were relieved to find it was the one before ours that had broken down on its way back up North. Consequently, this also meant the train before ours back was also off the table now too, so a lucky escape for once. Usually, these things go against you, don’t they?!
After removing a couple of people taking advantage of the sockets at our booked seats and being offered some croissants by the lady next to us (politely declined), we were soon rocking and rolling back down to the Capital for one final time this season. After passing the usual suspects’ grounds at Stockport, Macclesfield, along with a number of non-league sides’ homes on route, we continued on past the towering arch of the National Stadium prior to arriving into Euston at a little before 1pm. Securing our travelcards for the journey back over to Wembley, a quick peruse of the line-up of timetables in the concourse revealed an earlier than planned service which would take us into Wembley Station via the means of West Midlands Trains to the highly exotic-sounding location of Tring.
Caught in the nick of time (with it sat at the far end of the platform, just to keep it interesting), a short ten-minute hop later saw us setting foot in the North London suburb which is home to the stadium which carries its name, after having had the outdated “Empire” name removed while still in its previous iteration. Soon enough, we were outside the adjoining pubs known as the Liquor Station and the Wetherspoon’s outlet next door – the JJ Moon. Dan suggested the Liquor Station looked a good starting point, and I agreed, though expected it to be on the dearer side. Following a quick bag search (though I did get away without a full-body one which the guy in front of us ‘enjoyed’), we headed inside to find the pints remarkably cheap – £3.60 for an Amstel for me. No complaints with that to start things off with!
With the clock only just approaching 1.30pm by this point, we had the rare novelty of actually having time on our side and not having to rush at all. As such, it was past two by the time we entered the ‘Spoons – after another bag check – and I decided to try out one of the seemingly local delicacies in the form of the Portobello brewery’s London Pilsner. Again this was fairly easy on the pocket, coming in at £3.50, though things were about to go downhill pretty quickly in this regard after a promising start! Our next stop, Thirsty Eddie’s, was a lovely bar, though I could have done without a £5 pint of Carlsberg, that’s for sure! It seemed to become almost a standard price across the bars from here on too, though it was certainly better value than our last one….
Feeling somewhat lazy and with Dan wanting to get the most out of his £12-plus ticket, we decided to hop on a bus for the few stops up to Wembley Hill Road where we’d find the Green Man, a pub which seemed to be highly popular with fans from what I gathered from a couple of guides I’d looked at. Our need for something strong was added to by the very random sight of a guy, decked out in a couple of England flags, Union flags and other paraphernalia, dancing away on the road whilst wearing an Arsenal shirt, before casually walking off. As you do, I guess.
Anyway, the Green Man was certainly the one to go to for the action! The beer garden and bar itself was packed out with fans, largely England, and complete with numerous flags along its temporary fence at the back, which blocked off a wooded area behind, though this was navigated numerous times by the group of kids having a kick-about whilst, somewhat skilfully, avoiding knocking any pints flying, so full marks for that! A couple of the young ‘uns where also taking on roles as the referee, which caused confusion and I don’t think the multi-ref system will catch on anytime soon…
After finishing our pints in here (a round of £9.50) and watching a guy scale a tree in the middle of the garden whilst brandishing a flag of St. George, before being greeted with cheers upon his safe descent, we grabbed another bus and headed off towards the far end of town and the foot of the famed “Wembley Way”. Popping into the Double 6 sports bar for a quick one, we opted for a bottle of Budweiser which was, yet again, £5 (that’s the poor value one) before an attempt to get into the neighbouring Wembley Tavern was denied by the door staff on account that the bars all stopped selling alcohol at 1pm, apparently, Clearly, that wasn’t true, though I didn’t care too much, if at all. In fact, it proved a blessing in disguise as it turned out as, after a charge up Wembley Way to the ground and a stop for a programme (£5), Dan and I got separated and this five-minute delay almost proved fatal to our hopes of getting in for the start. The queues were awful, though didn’t seem like they should have taken a good ten minutes to get through and into the ground, so I don’t know what was going on, other than a few people not understanding how the tickets worked.
Once ours were finally scanned and we were inside, Dan headed for his seats immediately, whilst I made a quick pit stop before joining him just as the minute’s applause for the two legendary Ray’s – Wilkins and Wilson – was starting, and it was nice to be in time to be able to pay some sort of respects to them. Following this, the sides were all set to go and I’m not going to waste much time talking about what Wembley’s like, as I’m almost certain everyone has a decent idea! All I will say is that it is like a vast, bowl-like structure that is a lot better than I was expecting before my visit and I definitely look forward to heading back, now I can go to any game there, finally. Non-League Finals day is calling me….
A history lesson for England, you say? Oh, go on then, it might be the last in its current form….
The England national team began competing back in 1872, when they met Scotland in the first ever international football match, thus making them, obviously, one of the two oldest national sides in existence. The two nations had previously contested a representative match two years earlier too, though this isn’t regularly viewed as an official “international” fixture, as the latter game was the only one of the two that featured independently picked, and operated, squads representing both countries’ FA’s. The following 40 years saw England compete against the other Home Nations (Scotland, Wales and Ireland) in the British Home Championship, with the Three Lions winning the competition on no less than 54 occasions (including 20 shared titles) in all.
Meanwhile, England would play their first matches against sides from outside of the Home Nations in 1908 (having joined FIFA in 1906), on a tour of Central Europe. At this time, England was still a team that played all over the country, and this remained the case through to 1923, when the opening of the Empire (Wembley) Stadium saw them given a more permanent home ground. However, the first of several strained relations with FIFA soon reared its head, resulting in England leaving the organisation in 1928, and thus foregoing the opportunity to compete in the first few World Cups, only competing in their first World Cup tournament in 1950, when they suffered an infamous first-round exit after a 1-0 defeat to the minnows of the United States having re-joined FIFA in 1946.
However, their first defeat against a foreign side had come the previous year, this coming at the hands of the Republic of Ireland – a 2-0 defeat at Goodison Park seeing the Irish take that honour. A couple of tonkings at the hands of the great 1950’s Hungarian side (6-3 at home, 7-1 away) included the side’s record defeat that remains unbeaten to this day. Better days were to come, though, as England reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 1954, where they bowed out to defending champions, Uruguay. 1963 saw Alf Ramsey take over from Walter Winterbottom and his appointment saw him become the first manager to pick the side, this having been done by a committee previously. Of course, Ramsey (later Sir) would go on to guide the Three Lions to World Cup glory in 1966, as they overcame West Germany at Wembley to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy on home soil under the captaincy of Bobby Moore, who still stands guard outside the new stadium, immortalised. Geoff Hurst netted a famed hat-trick to seal an extra-time win over the great foes.
1968 saw England reach the UEFA European Championship semi-finals where a loss to Yugoslavia saw them bow out before defending their World title in Mexico at the 1970 tournament, where West Germany gained some measure of revenge by knocking out their rivals at the quarter-final stage after extra-time, having previously come back from two-down to level. Failure to qualify for the 1974 tournament saw Ramsey ousted, but things didn’t improve quickly, as England then missed out on the 1978 competition too, only returning come 1982, when Ron Greenwood made sure of their first appearance in 12 long years, and their first competitive qualification for 16 years. However, despite not losing a game, they only lasted until the second group round. The 1986 World Cup saw Bobby Robson (another to later be knighted) in charge and under he, England fared far better, making it to the quarter-finals once more, but they again were ousted by a big rival, Argentina, in the infamous game which featured Diego Maradona’s contrasting brace.
After losing every match at Euro 1988, they finished 4th in the World Cup of 1990, losing out on penalties to the kings of the spot-kicks, West Germany, in the semi-finals (Gazza’s tears upon being carded being the memorable pic from this) before losing to Italy in the 3rd/4th place play-off. They were still awarded bronze medals and were welcomed home as heroes regardless. Things again turned sour come the Euro’s, 1992 seeing England again fail to win a match, drawing with eventual fairytale winners Denmark, and France, before going out to hosts Sweden. The 1990’s saw a turnover of managers, with Robson’s successor Graham Taylor failing to qualify for the ’94 World Cup in the States, before Terry Venables oversaw a run to the semis of Euro ’96, where eventual winners Germany were again the scourge of the English, penalties breaking their hearts once again.
After resigning due to off-field happenings, Glenn Hoddle was installed and guided England to the 1998 World Cup in France, England going out in the second round to Argentina, again on penalties, despite a magical goal by a young Michael Owen. Hoddle departed soon afterwards and was replaced by Kevin Keegan for the run towards Euro 2000, but again England underperformed and his reign ended soon after the tournament ended for the Three Lions. His departure saw the first foreign boss of England arrive, in the form of Sven-Goran Eriksson and the colourful Swede took his new side to the quarters in each of the 2002 World Cup (Ronaldinho’s cross-shot), Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which saw Cristiano Ronaldo become a pariah for a time upon his return to Manchester United for his part in club team-mate Wayne Rooney’s sending off. Despite only losing five games under Eriksson, he was gone at the end of the tournament, with assistant Steve McClaren given the job.
However, McClaren flopped and England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 (the “Wally with a brolly”) with Fabio Capello brought in to replace him. The Italian guided England to a strong qualifying showing for the 2010 World Cup (losing just one game) but again flopped at the main tournament, scraping through the group stage before going out to Germany in the second round by 4-1, their heaviest World Cup loss. It could have been different had Frank Lampard’s goal stood but, let’s be honest, probably not. Capello resigned in 2012 after differences with the FA over the captaincy role at the time (amid allegations of racism) and his replacement eventually turned out to be Roy Hodgson, to the shock of the majority who expected Harry Redknapp to get the job. Hodgson, with a wide range of experience in the International game, as well as at club level, took England to the 2012 Euros, where they finished top of their group but again found a penalty shoot-out difficult to navigate and bowed out to Italy at the quarter-final stage.
After flopping at both the 2014 World Cup (England went out at the group stage for the first time since 1958) and 2016 Euro Championships (struggling through to the last 16 and a defeat to debutants Iceland) despite winning all 10 qualification matches for the latter, Hodgson resigned almost immediately afterwards and was replaced by Sam Allardyce, who left after just one game (a 1-0 win over Slovakia), a ‘breach of rules’ seeing him resign and thus become the shortest serving permanent England manager with a tenure of just 67 days. However, his 100% win rate means he is, statistically, the best England manager ever! Gareth Southgate, the under-21 boss, was installed as temporary boss in 2015, though this became a permanent appointment the following year, and the former England centre-half has guided England through another unbeaten qualification campaign and will take the side to Russia in a few days time, where they will face off against Tunisia, Panama and group heavyweights, Belgium.
The Three Lions have seen a fair amount of success in minor competitions too, these honours include three Rous Cups (1986, ’88 & ’89) – a competition competed for between England, Scotland and, later, a guest side from South America, the 2004 FA Summer Tournament – a preparatory competition before Euro 2004 featuring England, Japan and Iceland, played at the City of Manchester Stadium, the 1997 Tournament of France (Le Tournoi de France) – a mini precursor to the World Cup the following year, this tournament featured England, Brasil, France and Italy, and the 1991 England Challenge Cup which was a week-long tournament played at Wembley and Old Trafford and featured England, Argentina and the USSR. They’ve also won an unofficial 21 Football World Championships, playing out 88 matches as “champions”.
England got us underway and the hosts wasted little time in going forward. Just six minutes in, Kieran Trippier saw his stinging drive well saved by Nigerian ‘keeper Francis Uzoho and from the resulting corner, Gary Cahill climbed highest to meet a Trippier cross and direct his header into the top-corner, despite the Super Eagles having a defender, whom the ball flew over, on the line. A good start!
The hosts had the best of the play for the majority of the first twenty minutes, seeing a number of forays forward end with shots being blocked by the Nigerian defence, Ashley Young coming closest to doubling the advantage when reaching the angle of the six-yard box only to see another player wearing the glorious Nigerian World Cup kit get himself in the way of the effort. At the other end of the pitch, Odion Ighalo and Brian Idowu looked the most dangerous for the visitors and the former was particularly quick off the mark on numerous occasions, though often a little too quick and was caught offside a number of times during the game. When he wasn’t, though, he received a ball from Idowu and fired in an effort that caused Three Lions’ ‘keeper Jordan Pickford into a decent low stop.
England responded to this with Raheem Sterling’s effort flying over the bar, before skipper Harry Kane would double their lead around five minutes before the break, when his drive from outside the area went under the body of Uzoho and nestled in the bottom corner. A poor mistake by the ‘keeper. Nigeria did try to get right back into the game just before the break, with both Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses going close, the latter forcing a save out of Pickford, but they couldn’t find the net and the sides headed in with the hosts looking pretty comfortable, all things considered.
After trying to find some chips in one of the speciality food bars dotted around the sprawling concourse, I gave up and, with time running out, decided to get a Chicken Burger for a whole £6.50. It was a good job I was prepared for the shock, as others may not have been and began hyperventilating! Anyway, after navigating through the crowds – made up of fans of both sides – and back to a dozing Dan in the stands, we were soon all set to go for the second half….and it started with a bang!
Straight from the kick-off, Nigeria went on the attack and after Iwobi and Ighalo both went close, with the Watford striker seeing his shot come back off the upright, Arsenal midfielder Iwobi capitalised on the loose ball and drilled it beyond Pickford and into the bottom corner to send the Nigerian fans (especially those grouped together behind that goal) into something of a frenzy. Great scenes from their fans who created a good atmosphere throughout, though wasn’t as loud for us down the opposite end. We did have the band, though.
The Super Eagles continued to pile on the pressure and went close from a pair of corners, before England broke away and Sterling looked to be in the clear and one-on-one with the ‘keeper, but inexplicably dived and was duly carded. Why would you do it in a friendly? Practicing technique, perhaps? Who knows, but it was seemingly pretty pointless to us up in the higher reaches of Wembley. Moses responded by shooting wide for Nigeria too, before the steady stream of subs began to disrupt the flow of the game as it so often does.
John Mikel Obi and Marcus Rashford both went close for their respective sides, Obi’s shot on-target and Rashford’s going narrowly wide of the far post, whilst the Manchester United forward again went close with five minutes remaining, his looping header ending up on the roof of the net. That was pretty much that and a pretty entertaining game (by usual standards!) came to a close with England securing a comfortable enough victory, though Nigeria looked like a game side too, who can create regular problems for teams in below the “elite” sides.
A quick exit back past Bobby Moore was made whilst being swept along by the crowds back along Wembley Way and to the Park underground station. I made it just in time before the station was briefly put into crowd control, catching Dan at the foot of the stairs. This made little impact on our journey, though a non-planned change at Baker Street made things a little more hectic than they ought to have been. Regardless, a change was made with little issue and we were back in the Doric Arch in time for a swift one before the train back.
The journey back was an easy one as per, despite both of us and the lad who joined us at Milton Keynes being confused as to why we were stopping at Nuneaton (which I’ve never done before on this route) whilst also getting onto conversing about the local cricketing scenes and the ‘Father Ted’ episodes. Many catchphrases and scenes were re-enacted up until Stockport when we bid goodbye to our companion whilst Dan and I continued on through to Piccadilly, where he rushed off to get some late-evening shopping. I was off “shopping” too, ending in a usual place. Ah, the Tap, a perfect way to sign off any trip!
So, Wembley is finally in the books and “ticked”. It was great to get there after so long and at least the game was decent and goals were seen (48 and counting since a nil-nil, which is shocking to me considering the amount of higher-level games I’ve been to this year). Pubs were all good (not too overly pricey) whilst the chicken burger was good, if steeply priced. Programme was a good read, as expected and the travel all went well enough too. No complaints once again, it was a better experience than I expected and now just the one game remains. A carnival featuring ties….
Value For Money: 7