Scotland 1 v 3 England (18.11.2014)
As England friendlies go, they don’t get much better than this. Tuesday night’s visit to Celtic Park had more of a feeling of a crucial World Cup qualifier about it than it did a ‘friendly’. Maybe inflated media hype, and the anticipation and excitement of heading north of the border for the first time in 15 years to play the Auld enemy ‘away’ had a role to play in that. This might have been ‘just a friendly’, but in terms of performance from the players and that of the travelling supporters this game will probably prove to be the highlight of England’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign!
Of all the home nations, Scotland represents the biggest rivalry for England. Forget the current gulf in talent between both squads, this was about ‘who wanted it most’, the pride of representing your country, and the desire simply not to come out second best to one of your closest rivals. For once we saw players seemingly put their performance for the national team ahead of their weekend club game.
In the build up to the game If you had believed the hype and Gordon Strachan’s press conference you would have thought England were playing in Istanbul and readying themselves for a touch of ‘Welcome to Hell’ from the Galatasaray Ultras! Surely no-one really fell for that did they? With the exception of a minority of England players, I’m pretty confident most have experienced more volatile atmospheres on previous Champions League and Europa League forages at places like Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Partizan Belgrade and Dynamo Kiev than to be mentally affected by a Tartan Army cauldron at Celtic Park?! Scotland did their best though to get into the mind of the England camp though, and the media were all over it.
As it turned out the atmosphere was pretty decent, but it was more buoyant than volatile. The Stadium DJ did his best to get the Tartan Army fired up by blasting out the Proclaimers ‘I would walk 500 miles’ and ‘We’ll be coming down the road’; and as the players walked out to jets of smoke and fire Celtic Park was jumping. Both teams’ national anthems could barely be heard such was the cacophony of boos and whistles that greeted each other’s anthem.
England started brightly and set the tone with a high tempo pressing game, and this coupled with their early domination of possession seemed to quickly subdue the Tartan Army’s party atmosphere. The Scots knew they had a game on their hands. The travelling 5,000 England fans seemed to capitalise on this, and created a fantastic atmosphere. Chants and songs echoed off the low lying roof of the Lisbon Lions upper tier and reverberated out across Celtic Park. It was refreshing to hear and England fan track list offer up more than ‘God save the Queen’ and ‘Ingerland, Ingerland’, and on the night it was akin to being stood on the terraces of your club side as a host of ironic chants bellowed out from the England end. As Scotland’s first Minister Alex Salmond took his seat an early rendition of “F*** off Scotland, we voted yes!” was particularly well timed!
Both the atmosphere and performance from England was right up there, and in the words of Gordon Strachan, Scotland were spooked! It was shades of that classic night at the Stade de Geneve in Switzerland back in November 2005 when England played another of their arch rivals Argentina. That was another of the very few classic England friendlies. Those that were there that night in Geneva will probably resonate with me on this!
In many ways this was as strong an England performance as I have seen in recent times; the players showed real heart and desire (god I sound like Steve McClaren!) and a spirit rarely seen these days when England play. The performance was cohesive, the shape and organisation of the team looked good, and the work rate of the team off the ball is what really put England in a strong position here. A high intensity pressing game nullified Scotland’s recent run of good form, which has been typified by a fluid passing game and incisive counter attacking football.
Work rate was one thing, but in particular there were two moments of brilliance in this match that would have graced football of a much higher stage. The first a moment of sublime passing ability from Jack Wilshire. A long range lofted pass from the left side of midfield dissected the Scotland centre halves and left Marshall helpless as Oxlade-Chamberlain used the pace of the pass to guide a delicate glanced header into the far corner. 1-0 England.
England’s second goal came right at the start of the second half and knocked the stuffing out of the Scots. A low shot fired in from the edge of the box by Luke Shaw was heading wide, but rebounded off a Scotland defender back into the six yard box. Wayne Rooney reacted quickest and headed past Craig Gordon from close range. The away end was rocking and the ironic chants of “Are you Scotland in Disguise” and “Where’s your famous atmosphere” rang out across a muted and stunned Celtic Park.
The second moment of brilliance came after Scotland had scored a late goal to make it 2-1 and set up a nail biting final five minutes. But the immediate anxieties felt in the England end were quickly quelled after a slick passing move down the left side released Lallana into the box. As he reached the by line he produced an inch perfect cut back for Rooney to seal the win and take him to within two goals of the all-time England scoring record. Queue wild scenes in the England end, and a mini surge of delight towards the stewards and the home fans!
In recent times rarely have I walked away from an England performance feeling inspired and full of optimism (and equally, rarely have I walked away from an England game and had to walk 3 miles back to the city centre – but more on that in a moment!). Admittedly the plastic and hollow experience of modern football at Wembley home games hasn’t helped that – the friendly at home to Norway back in August perhaps best epitomises that disappointing feeling often associated with watching England! But today was different. Ok, it was just a friendly, and yes, Scotland are not quiet knocking on the door of the European super powers just yet, but you know what, as a fan I took more out of this match than most of the recent qualifiers and friendlies put together, and I bet Roy Hodgson did too.
After the final whistle, the away fans were locked in to allow the home fans time to disperse and to reflect on England’s dominant performance! What then ensued for England fans was a carefully policed, but equally ridiculous 3 mile walk back from Celtic Park into central Glasgow via the London Road – Glasgow Rangers territory. It must have been quite a sight as a corteo of 4-5,000 England fans marched the 3 miles back into the city centre skirted by police on horseback with helicopters hovering overhead. The roads were closed off and eerily quiet. All of the pubs dotted along the London Road that could have offered a welcome refreshment break to those not used to exercise levels such as this were also off limits. The red, white and blue of Union Jack flags hanging from intermittent pubs on the London Road in a weird way provided some solace, but also a stark reminder of the political split in this football mad city. To be honest I hadn’t realised Glasgow Rangers territory actually ran quite so close to Celtic Park as this. The Gallowgate Road on the other hand, which literally runs parallel to the London Road away from the ground represents Celtic’s patch. Green, white and orange, tricolor flags and shamrocks are the order of the day here. The Gallowgate Road and London Road almost intersect each other at Saltmarket just south of the Merchant City, and both must be a sight and a half on Old Firm derby day. One to add to the ever growing bucket list of games!
Central Glasgow and the Merchant City area are the obvious places for fans to congregate and enjoy a drink on a match day, but there were also some decent bars to be found in the west end of the city as well. The Byres Road area, near the University, has plenty of choice when it comes to bars and eating out, and in particular Ashton Lane – a small pedestrianized side street full of pubs and bars made for a good pre-match drink. From Byres Road a taxi will set you back about £12 to Celtic Park, or you can catch the No 2 bus from nearby Dumbarton Street down to the ground.