I, like the rest of the country will be hoping for and expecting a convincing win for England today. In June I was part of the squad that went to Estonia and gained as comfortable an away win in an international qualifier that I have ever seen. The match at Wembley should be more of the same.
Should be. From my experience England face a number of problems with playing opposition that is thought to be weaker. Some of these are are common to any professional team, others are unique to England.
The first problem arises before kick-off. Wembley and, in recent years for home internationals, Old Trafford, are magnificent stadiums to play in, enough to inspire any player. Although the atmosphere within the ground is mostly healthy and supportive, I would never describe an England home game as intimidating for the opposition. In qualifying for the last World Cup we travelled to Azerbaijan. I remember during the pre-match warm-up, a loud marching noise coming from outside the ground. Then the armed military appeared, shoulder to shoulder, and surrounded the pitch in a trench, looking as though they were ready to go over the top. I was thinking that I hoped they were there for our protection, but then what were they protecting us from that needed so many guns? That was intimidating.
With Wembley the stadium is so big it is very rare to hear the crowd sing in unison other than during the national anthem. It must be, in football parlance, a "nice" place to be the opposition. One game that England were rated to win comfortably was the World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland two years ago that ended in defeat. I watched the game from the main stand and was taken aback by Windsor Park being shaken to its foundations by the fans singing, stamping and dancing together. Despite the result, it was a wonderful atmosphere to witness a game in and a difficult one to be the away team.
I cannot remember the number of games I have played in where I am a member of the team which is expected to walk out comfortable winners and it has ended up a lot closer than anticipated. If a team is willing to place 10 men behind the ball, are well-organised and hard-working, the opposition can have the best creative midfielders and forwards in the world but space to play and create chances will still be at premium. My personal bogey matches are any in the League Cup. With my record in the competition, I am pleased for everyone associated with West Ham that the manager has played Richard Wright in the cup so far this season! With defeats to clubs like Brentford, Cheltenham and Chesterfield, I feel I am well-qualified to talk about the difficulties of playing lesser opposition.
Everyone in the team hopes for an early goal. This settles down a sometimes impatient crowd and dents the hopes of the opposition. Players feel the mood of a crowd rise and fall in the course of a match, this can reflect in their own temperament and play. The longer a game goes on goalless, the more the opposition believe in themselves, grow in stature and become more resolute in defence.
A game I remember well is playing Dagenham & Redbridge in the FA Cup in 2003 for Norwich at Carrow Road. Dagenham, then of the Conference, were written off as the non-League hopefuls coming to a big ground with fans expecting a glut of goals. We scraped a winner in the 94th minute – it looked decidedly offside.
At the start of the match we were met by a team full of running and heart, willing to attack but also happy to defend deep. I can remember standing in the freezing cold during the game desperately hoping that they didn't have a break away as my fingers had gone numb. The longer the game remained 0-0, the louder their fans got, cheering every block and clearance. Our supporters became more and more restless and their frustration seeped into our play. Arguments amongst us overflowed and I found myself feeling like a helpless spectator. Frustration, turned to anxiety, then relief as we scored our late winner. The full-time whistle was greeted by a crescendo of booing from our fans followed by a standing ovation for the Dagenham players.
On the other hand, being in a side that wins such a game is one of the best feelings in football. At West Ham we played at Arsenal and Manchester United at the end of last season and won both 1-0 after being written off by everyone but ourselves.
As a supposed lesser team, the key is to keep a clean sheet for the first 15 minutes, "ride the storm" as they say. At the Emirates in April Arsenal had a number of chances in the game's opening passages and you could feel the crowd's anticipation of a goal rising, feeling it would be "when" rather than "if". If they had scored early, I am fairly sure they would have got more.
After scoring just before half-time, such was the belief and determination in our side that even a team of Arsenal's quality found it difficult to find time and space near our goal. I remember players on the bench saying at the end of the game that they felt there had been a force field around our goal and six-yard box, such was our luck. At one corner I can remember saying to Freddie Ljungberg, now a team-mate but then with Arsenal, "Come on, you must score soon. This is getting silly". I don't think it helped ease their frustration.
My lasting memory of those games was leaving the pitch to a heroes' reception from our fans, then being applauded for our performance by the disappointed home fans who had booed their own team off.
For all involved in white at Wembley, I hope for an early goal to settle the nerves.
Robert Green, the West Ham United goalkeeper, made his England debut in 2005.Reuse content