It was the small motifs which suggested to Stuart Pearce and his players that the notion of a Great Britain football team is one that actually could take root and grow. The manager spoke late last night of how they had been clapped out of their hotel, up the road at Worsley, by all the staff – a new experience for him after all his years in game. For Craig Bellamy there was the even stranger sensation of leaving the Old Trafford pitch to a standing ovation – a hero.
This was the first British men's side to take to a football field for 52 years so, of course, little identity problems were inevitable, here and there. What to call them, for starters? "Team Great Britain" or "Great Britain" or "Team GB" – the stadium announcer, scoreboard and the protocol all differed. But whatever name you use, their supporters found an identity. The goalkeeper Jack Butland had turned to Twitter for a song after the deathly silence in last week's warm-up on Teesside but his distinctly unencouraging favourite - "ooh ah GBR" – could be parked in favour of "GeeBee", sung in the manner of that Anfield chant of "Dalgleesh".
For the first 45 minutes of the match, in which Pearce's side provided zip, movement, togetherness and the Senegalese drifted towards a state of chaos, the idea of a Great Britain team had meaning and relevance. When Bellamy combined with Ryan Giggs, Pearce's orchestrator-in-chief and, as of last night, the oldest outfield football player to represent a nation at the Olympic Games, the home nations really seemed to belong together. Bellamy, like Giggs, declined to sing the national anthem but a crowd of 72,176 did not begrudge him his little piece of history – as the first Olympic goalscorer for Great Britain's men since Patrick Hasty, a Northern Irishman of Tooting & Mitcham, scored in the Rome Olympics of 1960.
Sadly, the Olympian reverie lasted no longer than one half of football, after which a lack of match fitness began to tell and a side ranked 61st , on a football planet where the smallest weaknesses are punished by the smallest teams, began to prosper.
Pearce's side also left the stadium nursing a grievance about that the increasing outrageousness of the Senegal challenges which forced Joe Allen and Bellamy from the field, and left Ryan Betrand and Neil Taylor sore. The night's biggest mystery was how the Uzbek referee failed to award a penalty after Giggs had weighed a pass that sent Bellamy into the area and Salio Ciss threw a kitchen sink into the challenge which felled him. "Yes," Pearce said, when asked was that a penalty.
"All you want is a bit of protection," Giggs added. "You don't want anyone to get sent off but there were a few naughty challenges in there, a few of our lads are probably struggling for [the UAE on] Sunday now which is disappointing when you only have 18 players to choose from. I don't know how many fouls the No 10 [Sadio Mane] had but in a Premier League game he'd probably have been sent off three times."
Senegal's manager Aliou Cissé was not having this. "I'm surprised, considering it's Great Britain talking about physicality and fighting spirit," he said. "I know these boys very well and I know their quality. They would never do anything harsh. We would never teach anyone to act in a harsh or malicious way."
The challenges did seem more naive than malicious and the truth, as Pearce later agreed, was that Senegal provided enough, as Great Britain tired after the interval, to justify the draw.
Great Britain did have chances. Giggs's powers of provision might have sealed the game before the interval, had Daniel Sturridge – whose recovery of full strength, after his meningitis, will evidently take time – been able to capture a ball which the captain lifted over the Senegalese defence. But Senegal had a jack in their box – the Metz striker Sadio Mane, who spurned a chance when Butland cleared straight to him in the first half – and they provided prophetic demonstrations after half time that they were not finished. Ibrahima Balde swiveled and shot for the near post from five yards, forcing Butland to save sharply down to his left. Ciss drifted inside Bellamy and dispatched a 20-yard shot which the goalkeeper parried away and a header from a corner was cleared off the line by Danny Rose.
Just after Bellamy's penalty appeal was turned down, Mane caught up with the hosts, measuring a ball from the right which caught the GB defence flat and Micah Richards facing the wrong way. Moussa Konate stepped ahead up to clip it over the advancing Butland. Substitute Marvin Sordell hit the bar but it was too late.
Pearce tried to quell a late-night row about Bellamy and Ryan Giggs refusing to sing the national anthem. "I've no policy for singing the anthem. I've no problem [with the captain not singing it]," he said, adding that he would try to get the players to conjure some alternatives anthem. "We'll try to feed those anthems into the crowd because 'Great Britain' is a bit of a mouthful," he joked. A win against UAE on Sunday is imperative now but these players know that Britain is ready to adopt them if they can deliver up some success. That is an Olympian-sized incentive.
Man of the match Konate.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee I Ravshan (Uzbekistan).