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I think I've seen this film before

“Fully expect a cagey performance and narrow win for England against Serbia (and hope against hope for no unpleasantness in the stands), a draw against Denmark and the tabloids calling for Southgate to be sacked, and then us looking like world beaters against Slovenia and everyone being fully convinced that it’s coming home.” Well, I’ve got the first two out of three right. Let’s hope I’m right about the final part of the trilogy too.

Predictably, and depressingly, there was some trouble in Gelsenkirchen ahead of England’s opening game, which the German police confirmed was mostly between Albanians and Serbs. Equally predictably and depressingly, a lot of the press chose to focus on that, rather than on the even more predictable and depressing story that thousands of people, who were causing no trouble whatsoever, who had spent their hard-earned money travelling to support their team at Uefa’s showpiece tournament, were treated like shit and let down, once again.

The Free Lions Fans’ Embassy issued a statement after the Serbia game, condemning the lack of preparation and the inadequacies of the public transport system to and from the Veltins Arena. They pointed out that they had made it clear to the various authorities that thousands of England fans would be travelling from outer towns and cities in North Rhine – Westphalia and transport back to Gelsenkirchen Hauptbahnhof from the stadium had to be the biggest priority. They highlighted the late opening of the fan zone, the delayed start to the shuttle bus service, and the insufficient capacity on the transport from the racecourse fan park, which meant that fans couldn’t get the trams from there as they were already full, with similar problems from the city centre.

Fans who needed accessible assistance were disgracefully let down. Having been told to get off at Willy-Brandt-Allee tram stop, the trams then didn’t stop there. Fans were taken to the Veltins Arena tram stop – which isn’t fully accessible - and told to change platforms and get the tram back to Willy-Brandt-Allee. The Free Lions statement also highlighted a lack of signage, lighting and volunteers to guide fans at the ground, dangerous overcrowding at the tram stop after the game, and fans being stranded in Gelsenkirchen Hauptbahnhof for hours. Sort your shit out, Uefa. It’s beyond unacceptable to keep treating supporters like this.

Incidentally, in his Unexpected Delirium newsletter, Ian King described how, ahead of the Women’s World Cup in 2011, a German friend warned him, “If you want to disavow yourself of the notion that Germans are exceptionally well organised, all you have to do is catch a train that isn’t an intercity one”. So much for their efficiency. Sometimes you really want stereotypes to be accurate.

As for the game itself…. Well, that was somewhat predictable too, wasn’t it? England were absolutely flying in the first half, pretty much penning Serbia in their own final third, and they thoroughly deserved their early lead. Bellingham (who else?) picked up the ball on the halfway line, passed sideways to Kyle Walker who laid it off to Saka, who terrorised Serbia down the right throughout the first half. His peach of a cross was met by Bellingham doing what he does, making a perfectly timed run into the box and burying the ball in the net with a bullet of a header.

(Apparently the celebration was a reference to a card game called Werewolf that a group of the players and staff in the England camp, who call themselves the ‘Wolf Crew’, play. Bellingham explained that “When we play ‘Wolf’ one of the staff holds his face like that when he doesn’t know what’s going on”. So, er, now you know.)

Bellingham was as brilliant as we hoped he’d be, covering every blade of grass, terrifying Serbia going forward, and constantly tracking back to defend. He was also at his shithouse best, at one point in the first half tackling Kostic robustly but fairly, whipping the crowd up, then shoulder barging him. 20 years old. Fazed by nothing.

We all had a feeling what was coming in the second half, though. Serbia appeared to have finally worked out how to mark Saka, several players looked to be tiring, and England sat back and had to soak up pressure. It was grim to watch, but they dug in, kept a clean sheet and ground out a win. They probably won’t get away with doing that against a better team, but a win’s a win. England have only won their opening game in a major tournament 8 times, and 3 of those have been under Southgate.

England generally start slowly, and, famously, so does Harry Kane. He was notorious for not scoring in August for several seasons, and he failed to score in the group stage at both the last Euros and the Qatar World Cup. He was very quiet in the opening game, but he did force the keeper into a great save.

Declan Rice had a superb game, controlling the play from midfield, and frequently putting a foot in and closing down space when England lost possession. Playing Trent Alexander-Arnold alongside him was a bit of a curve ball. He lacked a bit of control defensively, but his long-range passing helped break down Serbia’s stubborn defence. Whether he’s the best option there, I dunno. We’ll see. I didn’t think Guehi put a foot wrong at centre half. He was immense at the back and was constantly pushing forward. Maybe I’ll let Southgate off for picking him ahead of Tarkowski. Maybe.

Let’s try to take the positives from the Denmark game, shall we? Kane played far better, doing what he’s good at, attacking and being direct early on, and got off the mark with a goal. Guehi was solid at centre half again. We’re top of the group and still unbeaten.

It really wasn’t very good, though, was it. After taking a deserved lead through a classic poacher’s goal by Kane (following great work down the right by Walker), England reverted yet again to Gazball and sat back instead of pushing their advantage. It was a great long range shot by Hjulmand, but a keeper with normal sized arms would have saved it.

Having played superbly against Serbia, Bellingham and Rice were both quiet on Thursday night. Bellingham, Kane and Foden all seemed to almost get in each other’s way, but subbing Kane, Saka and Foden all at once seemed…odd, especially after Foden hit the post on 55 minutes. I’m not at all convinced the Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield experiment is working, although I kind of hope he starts again v Slovenia because I’m enjoying texting “TAA is a bad wool” to my brother every time he sings the national anthem.

As I said earlier, England always start tournaments slowly. I fully expect them to make it through to the knockout stage, and I fully expect them to get better than this. They’ll have to. Play against – say – Germany the way they played on Thursday, and it’ll be humiliating.

I’ve very much enjoyed the tournament so far. I booked the week off work, and let me tell you, it feels uniquely indulgent to be in a pub at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon watching Croatia v Albania. I don’t think I’m winning the sweep, but Albania have been great fun to watch. (They probably shouldn’t sing that about Serbia, mind.) Kylian Mbappe getting his nose smashed to bits, minutes after going down clutching his face when the Austrian player hadn’t touched him, has been one of the highlights of the competition so far. Instant karma’s gonna get you, gonna twat you right in the face.

In Latics news, Joe Nuttall has gone on a season-long loan to Altrincham, and Nathan Sheron has gone to Hartlepool for an undisclosed fee. It’s a real shame it didn’t work out for Nuttall here, and he was never as lazy as some made out. I’m genuinely gutted to see Sheron go. I hope it works out for both of them. I’m not looking forward to them both scoring against us.

Bring on Slovenia, then. It’ll be reet. I’m still convinced it’s coming home, but I was convinced we were gonna piss the league last year. Whatever happens, enjoy the ride. KTMFF.

 Written by Arlene Finnigan

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