The best thing that can probably be said about England is that they won convincingly thanks to the flurry of goals in the closing exchanges, when they scored three of their four in all. Yet the lingering memory of this night might be the sight of England’s supporters taking down their flags and heading towards the exits […]
The best thing that can probably be said about England is that they won convincingly thanks to the flurry of goals in the closing exchanges, when they scored three of their four in all. Yet the lingering memory of this night might be the sight of England’s supporters taking down their flags and heading towards the exits with 20 minutes still to play. Those disaffected fans ended up missing most of the fun but the mood at that time could probably be summed up by the reaction to the second-half pitch invader. “Sign him up,” came the chant from the away end.
It was an edgy night on that front and there were times in the first half when it seemed as though England might be straying dangerously close to the kind of mutiny that provided the backdrop when Iceland were the opponents in Euro 2016. Instead, an awkward, stodgy night was given a slightly deceptive appearance by the goals in the last four minutes from Ryan Bertrand, Danny Welbeck and Harry Kane, scoring his second of the night.
England duly moved closer to qualifying for the World Cup and, on paper, it looked like a rout. In reality it did not feel that way. The goal rush told only part of the story and the mass walk-out at 1-0 was just another indication that there is a long way to go before the relationship between the team and supporters has been repaired.
Malta, to recap, had already let in five against Scotland in their opening qualifying match at the Ta’ Qali stadium. The nation at the bottom of Group F are currently 190th, out of 211 teams, in Fifa’s national rankings and had won only five competitive matches in 55 years of trying. Easy? Well, one might think so judging by the final score but it would be exaggerating to say England found it straightforward making their superiority count.
At half-time the game was still goalless and, half an hour in, there was the indignity of Malta’s fans poking fun at what they saw. England’s supporters digested what they had heard then came back with a variation of the same chant. “We’re fucking shit,” it went, over and again.
At that stage it did not feel as if this was a team edging closer to World Cup qualification and for many of the travelling supporters it was plainly an indignity to be drawing against a side featuring a centre-half from Ebbsfleet, currently 13th in the National League.
A reasonable argument could be made that it is always self-defeating to turn on the players. Yet it was also true that the team should have been making a better job of exerting their authority and the dissent was audible again before half-time, this time manifesting itself in boos after a misplaced pass from Kyle Walker. Shortly afterwards Dele Alli managed a shot on target and there were exaggerated cheers. “Fish and chips,” the Malta hardcore chanted back, confusingly.
It was a strange evening, all things considered, and Malta’s manager, Pietro Ghedin, made the point that his team’s late capitulation was simply a case of one team’s superior fitness. “Physically we were out,” he said.
The burst of goals certainly came as a surprise because the game had been drifting aimlessly towards its conclusion until Bertrand let fly from almost 30 yards and Andrew Hogg, Malta’s goalkeeper, lost the flight of a dipping shot to let in the second goal.
After that England looked as if they could score with every attack. Welbeck, one of England’s second-half substitutes, nipped in front of Hogg to make it 3-0 with a measured volley from a right-wing cross and then Kane, England’s most impressive player, finished the scoring with a powerful finish from an unmarked position 10 yards out.
It did not feel like a rout but the finale did at least make it a much more satisfying evening from England’s perspective. It was just a shame, perhaps, that most of their supporters had gone long before the end. Out of 3,700 England fans, at least two-thirds had disappeared. Has there ever been an England game with such a mass walkout? And has there ever been a 4-0 win for this team when the crowd has turned on the players this way?
Southgate’s response at half-time was to remove Raheem Sterling and introduce Marcus Rashford as a like-for-like replacement on the left side of England’s attack on a night when Jordan Henderson was re-acquainted with the captain’s armband.
At least Kane’s first goal, after 52 minutes, arrived early enough in the second half to change the mood for the better, just as it was starting to look as though Southgate’s players might be allowing anxiety to creep in.
Alli had the first chance to shoot inside a congested penalty area but, with several defenders closing him down, he had the presence of mind to delay, size up his options and then realise Kane was in a better position to his left.
The Tottenham centre-forward took a touch to steady himself and turned the ball past Hogg with a low right-foot drive.
A few minutes earlier Malta’s captain, Andre Schembri, had flashed a shot narrowly wide of Joe Hart’s goal. Samuel Magri had another go as Malta tried to find a quick equaliser but, on the whole, they were obliging opponents.
Hart did not have to save a single effort on target and, by the end, some of the England fans who had headed off early might have wished they had stuck around longer.