Like Sven Goran Eriksson's senior side, the England National Game XI lost 3-1 this week in a friendly match which was adversely affected by the demands of club football. But, in contrast to the Swede's sorry night against Australia, when perhaps prompted by Premiership pressure he changed his team at half-time at Upton Park on Wednesday, Paul Fairclough's outfit were very much the underdogs against Belgium's Under-20 squad in Ostend on Tuesday.
The former Stevenage Borough manager, on his debut in charge of the England non-League select team, was up against a Belgian side drawn not from the country's semi-professional ranks but from their top-flight clubs. Belgium were using the fixture as a warm-up for next month's World Under-20 Championship and included a player with Champions' League experience this season.
Fairclough, however, could not even call upon his country's finest non-League players, due to the stubborn refusal of Nationwide Conference clubs to release their players for this friendly. With a hastily assembled replacement squad drawn mainly from the Ryman League, plus some men from UniBond and Dr Martens clubs, England did well to restrict their talented opponents to a two-goal winning margin.
Genk's Kevin Vandenbergh, who has played against Roma and Real Madrid this term, put Belgium ahead early in the first half, against the run of play. Scott Rickards almost equalised, but England suffered a setback when the defender Chris Duffy was sent off a minute before the interval after being shown his second yellow card of the half.
Despite being a man down England still created chances after the break, but Vandenbergh soon added his second goal. Fairclough then fielded all of his substitutes – one of whom, the former Crystal Palace striker Roscoe D'Sane, scored from close range after Mike Tomlinson had headed Ian Craney's free-kick back across goal. The final goal came from the St-Truiden striker Benjamin de Ceulaer.
"The way our team played against players from the Belgian First Division was heroic," Fairclough said. "They have done themselves no harm at all when it comes to naming a squad for the friendly in Holland next month and the Four Nations Tournament later this year."
ENGLAND NATIONAL GAME XI: L Key (Kingstonian); J Kennedy (Canvey Island), S Ward (Canvey Island), M Pullan (Crawley Town), C Duffy (Canvey Island), A Riviere (Welling Utd), I Craney (Altrincham), F Manuella (Aylesbury Utd), A Wilde (Worcester City), C McAllister (Basingstoke Town), S Rickards (Tamworth). Substitutes: T Sills (Kingstonian) for McAllister, 58; M Tomlinson (Runcorn Halton) for Pullan, 63; N Bull (Aldershot Town) for Key, 66; J Keeling (Purfleet) for Wilde, 71; R D'Sane (Aldershot Town) for Rickards, 74.
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