There was no way into Scotland v Norway: the Antiquary spilled guys out onto the street clutching radios, the Baillie was full to the doors and people craning for a glimpse of even one of their many screens. The Standard’s crowded front yard told a similar story, so we pushed on for the Cambridge and eavesdropped for news. I could, apparently, have scored that one with a zimmer frame, or was it with a ball and chain? But there wasn’t any anger or contempt on view. Watching England used to be like this, in the mid ’90s when I’d get to the Wellesley early with mates and grab a table, a table I’d later be warned about standing on…
InÂ the Cambridge, they’d just finished with Charlie Nicholas’s “be realistic about this”Â interview, which was basically and justifiably positive about the way ScotlandÂ hadÂ performed. I felt that Norway had been unjustly played down by the ScottishÂ pressÂ in the days before the game:Â thereÂ have been more Norwegians playing at the very topÂ of the gameÂ in recent years than Scots, although that is beginning to change.
Game overÂ in the Cambridge, although there didn’t seem to be any appetite forÂ turning the TV off. Top Gear on Dave was considered for a few seconds, or Wales v Liechtenstein. Then someone went up to the bar and had a quiet word: a button was pressed, and suddenly it was all red and white on the screen: Wembley. A drunken, middle-aged shout of “Come on, Kazakhstan!” butÂ oneÂ met by frowns andÂ nervous shufflingÂ on seats.
I saw the first half!
And, actually,Â having seen it, wasn’t too surprised by the eventual scoreline. It’s another ofÂ those cases where you appear to have seen a different game from the press. I felt that Kazakhstan rode their luck to a great degreeÂ in the first 45, not merelyÂ in not conceding, butÂ in not collecting 4 or 5 yellow cards for some frankly childish and unsubtle foul play. Kick Rooney, kick Walcott, and go down at every opportunity seemed to be the tactic, andÂ the referee was too weak to dealÂ withÂ it. Fortunately, Rooney wasÂ in no mood to be wound up, and Walcott doesn’t get wound up, and, luckily, it didn’t lead toÂ injury, but I keep finding that word “luck”Â on my lips when it comes to Saturday’s visitors.
My principal disappointment was the performance of Matthew Upson, who had a terrible day, and must feel grateful to Ashley Cole for taking someÂ of theÂ negative attention away from him. EnglandÂ need a solid backup for John Terry, for the sakeÂ of the captain’s erratic form and his frequentÂ injuries. Unfortunately, there isn’t one: central defence is England’s new balsa department.
But the midfield actually played with a degree of awareness andÂ intelligence – I don’t remember a single Gerrard glory passÂ in the whole half, and Lampard was extremely unfortunate not to cap anÂ impressive display with a goal. The passing still wasn’t up to the standardsÂ of a Spain or Italy, but it was much better than weÂ have been used to seeingÂ lately. The team are more willing to wait, more willing to loiterÂ on the ball.
No Michael Owen,Â ofÂ course, whoÂ wouldÂ have loved to beÂ on the endÂ ofÂ oneÂ of the passes Rooney and Walcott were slidingÂ into the opposition area. But not no Michael Owen for ever: if Ray Clemence’s recent comments are a good reflection of Capello’s thinking, Capello wants Owen to raise his game to a whole new level, to regain real footballing ambition, to stop waiting for things to get better. It’s a harsh approach for a player whoÂ has never let England down, but the results could be veryÂ interesting six months from now. I wonderÂ if Wigan might consider another bid for himÂ in January?