There was a point during the first 90 goalless minutes of Saturday’s last-16 tie at Wembley when it felt as though the two teams were succumbing to their surroundings. Italy had arrived on this stage as the group stage’s joint-top scorers and most impressive performers. Austria were underdogs but no slouches, either. And yet it was an awkward, bitty game for the most part, which is to say that it was not very good.
That is what Wembley does to you, though. Or rather, that is what the new Wembley does to you. The national stadium has struggled to capture its public’s imagination following the completion of its redevelopment in 2007. Since those iconic towers came down, the spiritual home of English football can feel more like a burial ground: where all hope of watching an entertaining game goes to die.
Not that there haven’t been some good games. It has hosted two Champions League finals – one graced and won by the greatest club side of a generation, no less – but nights like that have been the exception, not the rule. A cheap and cheerful listicle of the best matches to be played at the new Wembley starts with Hull City’s 5-3 win over Sheffield United in the 2014 FA Cup semi-finals. It sounds like it was a fun day out but it’s not what you pay £790m for.
For that price, the Football Association (FA) wanted the modern Wembley’s greatest games to be a communal event. They wanted something the whole country could unite in. Basically, they wanted a big, good England game. But nearly 15 years after its grand reopening, the greatest or most significant England game to be played at the national stadium until this week was probably a defeat.
Croatia’s 3-2 win in 2007, which ended Steve McClaren’s reign and England’s hopes of reaching the following summer’s Euros, served up several iconic moments. There was Wally with the Brolly himself for starters, Scott Carson’s unfortunate competitive debut and the YouTube classic that is Sol Campbell’s never-ending slide tackle. None – apart from maybe the never-ending slide tackle – are particularly fond memories but they are memories, at least.
The issue with Wembley is that the most important England games to be played there are qualifiers and, for Europe’s major footballing nations, qualifying for tournaments is increasingly becoming a formality. Even those England games which have carried something to play for, such as Poland’s visit in the final qualifier before the 2014 World Cup, have lacked a sense of true jeopardy.
The Nations League has added more competitive fixtures to Wembley’s calendar and is a welcome addition, but the staccato rhythm of a competition played over several autumn international breaks is never going to capture the public’s imagination in the same way as an uninterrupted summer tournament. What was needed was that summer tournament and, yesterday, it arrived in earnest.
This last-16 victory against Germany was the modern Wembley’s first great England game, and that was because – in the best way possible – it did not feel like the modern Wembley. The scenes which greeted both Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane’s goals in front of the west stand were more like those of a dedicated, thousands-strong away following witnessing a last-minute winner at Rotherham on Monday night.
Despite the reduced capacity and social distancing measures in place, there were limbs all over the shop. And even before the goals, the roars which met England’s defensive work were as loud if not louder than the cheers when they were on the attack. Four years ago, there was such a sense of apathy at Wembley that fans were more interested in floating paper airplanes down to the pitch than supporting the team.
This could not possibly have been further from that, and that is a credit to Gareth Southgate and his players.
There is one problem, though. England now have to kip on their mate’s sofa for a night. There is a danger that Saturday’s quarter-final against Ukraine at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome will feel like part of a whole other tournament, when in reality it will merely see England experience the same sense of displacement that every other team left in this tournament has had to put up with.
It should be noted, too: England have only played these first four games on home soil by a mixture of good fortune and chance, anyway. Wembley was only supposed to host the semi-finals and final at first but a combination of delays to the construction of a stadium in Brussels and Ireland’s strict Covid restrictions meant three group stage fixtures and two last-16 ties were moved to London.
Still, Saturday will be strange, and there are drawbacks beyond the loss of home advantage and the travel. “The preparation time is really short, so much less time on the training pitch,” Southgate pointed out. “We were able to work unusually in more depth, because we don’t normally get that time with the players. That's going to be a quicker turnaround. It's going to be about recovery, it's going to be about making sure psychologically we're back in the right place.”
But if Southgate and his players needed any further incentive to beat Ukraine, fly back and play a semi-final at home, they got it against Germany. There is one image of Kane celebrating his goal that perfectly captures what was special and different about Wembley on this occasion. For as Kane wheels away in celebration, there is a throng of mangled, happy bodies in the background.
At least two men have taken their shirts off. A third is in the process of doing the same. Umpteen people are sliding down the tarpaulin covering the first few rows of seats. Three stewards are holding their arms out, trying and failing to calm everyone down. Karen Carney, working on the game for radio, is in the same pose but she’s facing the pitch, mouth agape, staring madly into the middle distance, in a state of pure delight.
It’s a Renaissance painting but with beer bellies. Basically, it’s beautiful, and perfectly captures a glorious moment at Wembley when England’s house finally became their home.
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