A double dose of Wembley

We’ve all read about the John Terry incident at QPR, and the moment when he was alleged to have made a racist remark to Anton Ferdinand. It’s kind of ironic that, given the row that has developed regarding Terry and Ferdinand (and the captaincy sub-plot about whether Terry should retain the armband – again), that we are playing the European and World Champions, who have a bit of previous when it comes to these kinds of matters in England encounters. The game in the Bernabeu in November 2004 was soon overshadowed by the chanting of certain sections of the crowd (as well as Luis Aragones and his description of Thierry Henry to Jose Reyes), and the resulting furore that was created that particular winter night led the England team to wear “kick racism out of football” logo’s on the front of their shirts for the next game, which was a friendly against the Dutch at Villa Park a few months later.

Whether this qualifies as a political statement, I’m not sure, but in the week leading up to the game, the FA asked FIFA on more than one occasion that the team be allowed to wear a poppy on their shirts, much as most clubs nowadays seem to do around Remembrance Day. FIFA decided that this constituted a political statement and that it would not be allowed. What is actually written in the FIFA equipment regulations (on page 78 if you’re interested) is this;

For all matches, all forms of advertising for sponsors, Manufacturers (exceeding the extent of Manufacturer’s Identification permitted under Chapter VI above) or any third parties, of political, religious or personal statements and/or other announcements, are strictly prohibited on all Playing Equipment items used on, or brought into (permanently or temporarily), the Controlled Stadium Area.

So, basically, it depends on if you defined the poppy as a political statement or not. There was much written about this decision, and most of it has been negative on FIFA. But national team shirts (at the moment) carry no advertising, other than the kit manufacturers logo which is (I suppose) to FIFA’s credit that there are some football shirts that at least remain advert free. The FIFA rules state that no political message is to be carried on a national team jersey, and while many may not like it, it’s been there all the time and this was the first time that I could recall that the idea of putting a poppy on the England shirt had been bought up.

Then, late in the week, it all changed. FIFA backed down (according to the press), and would now allow the players to display the poppy on a black armband. While it was portrayed as a success for the campaign to allow players to display this symbol, it seemed more like a compromise; after all, it’s still not on the shirt. As Stuart Pearce commented though, we asked, they said no, so we move on. It’s fantastic that, ninety years since the start of the poppy appeal, we still remember our fallen service personnel, but it seems as though we are now trying to outdo each other when it comes to remembering the fallen and paying our respects.

Not that “poppy-gate” ever stood to overshadow the game. John Terry remains the focus of attention leading up to the match, and although he has been selected in the squad, some will view his inclusion as a controversial move, given everything that is going on at the moment. However, most of the media reports leading up to the Spanish game had him missing from the starting eleven, with Frank Lampard (not necessarily guaranteed a starting position now), taking over as captain. Also missing will be Wayne Rooney, although this is because Capello wants to plan without him as he is likely to miss three games at the European Championships.

If it’s like last Spanish game against Scotland, then it might be a few minutes until we actually get a touch of the ball. They have included several Barcelona players in the squad, which will more than likely mean lots of possession for Spain, and an evening containing lots of running around chasing shadows for England.

With a late kick off for the England game, and it also being FA Cup first round weekend, we (that’s myself, Dagenham Dan and Neil Shenton) wanted to try and take in another game. The original plan had been to get to the Brentford v Basingstoke FA Cup tie, but then a couple of days before the game, Dan saw that there was a game much closer, and that not only would it be cheaper to attend (a special offer for England ticket holders meant that entrance would only be £5), but also constitute a ground tick. So, with the second reason holding sway, we headed up to Wembley Park, and then had the walk out to the sports centre when both Wembley FC and Hendon FC play their home games.

Saturday 12th November 2011, Hendon v Canvey Island
After what seemed like a never ending hike from Wembley, we finally made it to Eton Road with about ten minutes to kick off. Neil had already decided that he would be visiting the tea bar, which was handy as it was the first thing we saw inside the ground.

The other thing that was noticeable was the advertising boards. Well, noticeable to me because they all looked as though they had been used at previous London Marathons. I only mention it because I can’t recall too many other grounds having adverts for Flora, Timex or Bupa. There was even half a board carrying an old London 2012 logo. (ED – This is due to Wembley FC’s chairman being involved in the organisation of the Marathon).

There were two familiar faces in the Hendon team. At centre back was Frank Sinclair, and during the first half, he made a couple of passes that gave a hint to a career that has involved playing at a much higher level than the Isthmian League. The other is a familiar one to daggers fans; Darren Currie is patrolling the left touchline for the home team, and like Sinclair, there are glimpses of a higher standard than this.

The occasional decent pass aside, the first half isn’t the greatest. There has been lots of effort, but then again, the few chances that have been created have been squandered and its 0-0 at the break.

The only goal arrives a few minutes into the second half. The shot crosses the line despite hitting the post and careering across the goal, and Hendon have the lead. The rest of the half follows the first, with no lack of effort, but little else. Canvey complain about the time-wasting of the home goalkeeper, while the home captain is less than complimentary when a Canvey player is left in a heap in the Hendon area after the home goalkeeper has tackled him as he was played through, chasing a loose ball. The visiting fans are constantly shouting out to the referee, and only in the last couple of minutes does he do anything about the home keeper, by finally booking him.

To be honest, it’s been a fairly standard Isthmian League game, and despite some visiting pressure, Hendon hold on for the 1-0 win. It’s not been an impressive game, but when it’s only cost a fiver to get in, I’m not going to complain too long.

Saturday 12th November, England v Spain, Wembley Stadium
As soon as the game at Hendon has finished, the three of us make our way from the ground, and head back towards the national stadium. As we walk, we pass a park where some local kids have picked up what looks like a large piece of a tree, only to lob it at a park bench. What the bench has done I’m not sure, but it must have dissed them big time, innit?

The walk back seems to take far less time than it had done on the way out, probably because we stayed on the pavements on this occasion, rather than trying to take short cuts. As we get back to the stadium, the crowds have started to arrive, and walking back up to the turnstiles, we are dodging in and out as people take pictures of the arena and have group photos outside.

For the first time I can recall, almost no-one expects us to get anything from the game, except possibly a sound beating. Dan is that confident, that as soon as we are in the stadium, he places a bet on Spain to win 4-0. Neil reckons that it being a bit optimistic, but Dan is undeterred.

While we are intent on watching the teams warm up, we are also keeping a look out for the score at Dagenham; one down early on, we’ve got an equalizer which would probably brightened the mood a little, but as the game at Wembley draws closer, the second half at Victoria Road is progressing, and there are no text updates from those at the game. As the players disappear at the end of their warm up, we get the final score at Dagenham. It’s ended 1-1, which means a midweek trip to Bath for the replay. Dan almost immediately announces that he will attend, and up until the kick off, he is searching for train times and fares.

The poppy row that had been developing at the start of the week had been defused, and finally the teams enter the field of play. After the presentation of each team to members of the armed forces, we have the national anthems, before the obligatory team pictures. Then, after tracksuit tops are removed and the last manic warm up is completed, both teams line up at the centre circle for the minutes silence. Aside from an occasional loud mouth (presumably arriving late and not having a clue what is going on), the silence is well observed, and finally we can get the game under way.

The first half is a strange one. Many are appreciative of the way that Spain play, and how hard they work when they have the ball. Quite a few though are surprised at how much harder they work when they don’t have it, and how quickly they are closing the home players down when we do actually get a touch or two of the ball. The expected onslaught hasn’t quite happened as we all thought it would, but it has still been almost one way traffic. By the time half time comes around, we are still at 0-0, and looking good for it, although it has been a bit of a rear guard action. A quick check of the BBC website on our phones reveals that according to them, Spain have had 65% possession and had more shots on goal (7-1). Despite the one sided nature of the first half statistics, we are still level, and there is a guarded optimism about what had gone on so far.

As the second half begins, there have been changes for both teams, and the game will look as though it will take time to settle again. However, before it can do that, something happens that few of us expected; we score. If we had been expecting an England goal, then it may well have been as a consolation when the game was already out of sight, but we take the lead. So far we haven’t looked like scoring in open play, but from a free kick on the England left, a cross is played to the middle of the penalty area, where Darren Bent’s header beats a floundering Reina, but hits the inside of the post. Almost in slow motion, the ball bounces along the goal line, where Frank Lampard heads home from about six inches out. This brings celebration (and an accompanying sense of disbelief) from the home fans, who gleefully rub it in to the noses of those Spanish fans sitting in amongst the home support.

Up until now, the home fans have been only sporadic in finding their voices, and seem to have been more appreciative of the Spanish play. Suddenly, it has all changed, and it now becomes a very different atmosphere.

As the game progresses, there are more changes, and it appears to have more of an effect on the visitors, as their Barcelona nucleus is diluted, and the passing starts to lose some of its danger. Of course, that’s just my impression, but we appear to be getting into the game more. We’ve had to be at our best defensively, and none more so that Scott Parker, who is replaced near to the end and is given a standing ovation from practically the whole stadium as he makes his way from the pitch.

There are a couple of near misses from Spain as the game approaches the final whistle, and there are a couple of England breaks that come to nothing, but it is all in vain. There is no second goal in the game, and when the Belgian referee brings the game to an end, we have managed to beat the best team in the world.

It would be foolish to build this up to be anything other than just a win in a friendly international. There have been far too many occasions in the past where a win against a big team has been interpreted as a sign that we might finally achieve something in an international tournament, only to be end up disappointed again. There is still a bit of time for the youngsters to develop (like Phil Jones, deployed in an unfamiliar midfield role) and hopefully they can develop into crucial players for us. Against a vastly more experienced Spanish team, the side performed admirably, and it would have been madness to try and match Spain at their own game. To try and play our normal way would have been to invite a drubbing, and so although there would have been some out there who would not have been too enamoured with our tactics, it was at least heartening to see that, if we were to have a game where we have to soak up a fair amount of pressure, that we can actually do it and prosper. Make no mistake, if the game had been an important one, Spain would probably have won this one, and this was not their first friendly defeat since winning the World Cup. They won every game in qualifying for the European Championships, and that is an impressive statistic. We should celebrate the win, but let’s not go too overboard about it; after all, we play Sweden next, and we haven’t beaten them since we were World Champions. And that was a long time ago…

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