No matter who they are – the golden generation, the women or the Under-21s – every England side that travels to a major tournament does so on a wave of anticipation.
The final match before the Under-21s depart for the Czech Republic and the European Championship served as a familiar reality check. Their manager, Gareth Southgate, oversaw a decent workout against what on paper should have been undemanding opposition a week before they face Portugal in the tournament’s opening fixture.
It did, however, lack the sparkle that has made England a good outside bet to win their first European Championship since 1984. It was only seven minutes from a delayed finish when they finally broke through, just when a determined Belarus side had been reduced to 10 with the dismissal of Mikalai Zolatau for a second bookable offence.
Quite a number of the sizeable crowd that had come to Barnsley had left by the time Ben Gibson bundled in Luke Garbutt’s half-saved free-kick. It was another win but Southgate and England would hope for better when the serious business begins.
The kick-off was delayed for half an hour, not because of congestion but because of the absence of any Belarussian footballers, whose coach had been delayed on the M1.
Belarus had not been expected to provide much opposition for an England side that had lost once since the last European Championship two years ago, but you thought they might turn up.
For half an hour or so, England gave Oakwell an open training session while the loudspeakers went through a rendition of some of the songs from tournaments past, from “World in Motion” to “The Great Escape”. Then, three or four minutes after the scheduled kick-off time, some distinctly Belarussian-looking coaches appeared carrying cones. We had a game.
It began at 8.22, 37 minutes behind schedule, and before very long England ought to have been a couple of goals up. First, Gibson sent a free header just wide. Then Saido Berahino, leading the England attack partly because Harry Kane had just returned from Tottenham’s less-than-vital post-season tour of Malaysia and Australia, was ruled offside.
This was a decent time and place for the West Bromwich Albion forward to make an impression. A lovely switch from Tottenham’s Alex Pritchard found Berahino in space and he forced the first of what would be a series of fine saves from the Belarussian keeper, Uladzislau Vasiliuchak.
You might have thought that given the lateness of their arrival, Belarus would have become more ragged as the game wore on but their manager, Ihar Kavalevich, who from a distance bears more than a passing resemblance to the rock star, Meatloaf, would have been delighted with the way his young team defended.
They threw bodies in the way, they tackled when it mattered and they reached the interval goalless.
Belarus were out rather more promptly for the start of the second half than they were for the first. England continued to dominate without achieving the breakthrough you sensed must come.
Then Southgate decided it was time to up the stakes, bringing on Liverpool’s new recruit, Danny Ings and, to huge cheers, Kane. It was the kind of heartfelt reception that post-season tours, however lucrative, seldom provide.
England U21: Butland, Hughes, Berahino, Jenkinson, Stones, Gibson, Garbutt, Ward-Prowse, Carroll, Redmond, Prichard.
Belarus U21: Yanchanka, Lebedzeu, Zolatau, Pazinak, Ihnatsenka, Karpovich, Yarotski, Yablonski, Korzun, Leshka.
Referee: J Lardot (Belgium)Reuse content