There was no way into Scotland v Norway: the Antiquary spilled guys out onto the street clutching radios, the Baillie was full to the doors and people craning for a glimpse of even one of their many screens. The Standard’s crowded front yard told a similar story, so we pushed on for the Cambridge and eavesdropped for news. I could, apparently, have scored that one with a zimmer frame, or was it with a ball and chain? But there wasn’t any anger or contempt on view. Watching England used to be like this, in the mid ’90s when I’d get to the Wellesley early with mates and grab a table, a table I’d later be warned about standing on…
In the Cambridge, they’d just finished with Charlie Nicholas’s “be realistic about this” interview, which was basically and justifiably positive about the way Scotland had performed. I felt that Norway had been unjustly played down by the Scottish press in the days before the game: there have been more Norwegians playing at the very top of the game in recent years than Scots, although that is beginning to change.
Game over in the Cambridge, although there didn’t seem to be any appetite for turning the TV off. Top Gear on Dave was considered for a few seconds, or Wales v Liechtenstein. Then someone went up to the bar and had a quiet word: a button was pressed, and suddenly it was all red and white on the screen: Wembley. A drunken, middle-aged shout of “Come on, Kazakhstan!” but one met by frowns and nervous shuffling on seats.
I saw the first half!
And, actually, having seen it, wasn’t too surprised by the eventual scoreline. It’s another of those cases where you appear to have seen a different game from the press. I felt that Kazakhstan rode their luck to a great degree in the first 45, not merely in not conceding, but in not collecting 4 or 5 yellow cards for some frankly childish and unsubtle foul play. Kick Rooney, kick Walcott, and go down at every opportunity seemed to be the tactic, and the referee was too weak to deal with it. Fortunately, Rooney was in no mood to be wound up, and Walcott doesn’t get wound up, and, luckily, it didn’t lead to injury, but I keep finding that word “luck” on my lips when it comes to Saturday’s visitors.
My principal disappointment was the performance of Matthew Upson, who had a terrible day, and must feel grateful to Ashley Cole for taking some of the negative attention away from him. England need a solid backup for John Terry, for the sake of the captain’s erratic form and his frequent injuries. Unfortunately, there isn’t one: central defence is England’s new balsa department.
But the midfield actually played with a degree of awareness and intelligence – I don’t remember a single Gerrard glory pass in the whole half, and Lampard was extremely unfortunate not to cap an impressive display with a goal. The passing still wasn’t up to the standards of a Spain or Italy, but it was much better than we have been used to seeing lately. The team are more willing to wait, more willing to loiter on the ball.
No Michael Owen, of course, who would have loved to be on the end of one of the passes Rooney and Walcott were sliding into the opposition area. But not no Michael Owen for ever: if Ray Clemence’s recent comments are a good reflection of Capello’s thinking, Capello wants Owen to raise his game to a whole new level, to regain real footballing ambition, to stop waiting for things to get better. It’s a harsh approach for a player who has never let England down, but the results could be very interesting six months from now. I wonder if Wigan might consider another bid for him in January?