The cheers from ecstatic England cricket fans in Nottingham had barely quietened when, just a short drive away in Wolverhampton, the booing from the country’s football supporters reached an angry crescendo.
It would be hard to imagine two more contrasting sporting performances by England’s respective national teams than those produced on Tuesday.
At Trent Bridge, England delivered one of their greatest Test match victories, with Jonny Bairstow smashing an astounding century off 77 balls, against New Zealand, as a second innings target of 299 was chased down in 50 exhilarating overs of attacking cricket.
A few hours later, 60 miles across the Midlands in Wolverhampton, England’s football team suffered their worst home defeat in 94 years, since 1928, with a miserable, lifeless performance in a humiliating 4-0 loss to Hungary in the Nations League. The contrast was particular sharp given they marked a drastic reversal in fortunes for the country’s two major national teams.
England’s cricket side had won just one of their last 17 Tests going into this series against New Zealand, slumping down the world rankings, prompting wholesale changes with the appointment of a new managing director, coach and captain.
The football team had been enjoying a rare extended period of stability and relative success. Under manager Gareth Southgate they reached the final of Euro 2020, held last year, three years after making the semifinals of the World Cup, their best finish since 1990.
But their performances since losing the Euro final at Wembley on penalties to Italy have gradually deteriorated and they have failed to win any of their four Nations League games, scoring just one goal. There are mitigating circumstances that Southgate was justified in referencing after Hungary completed a shock ‘home and away’ double over his team.
The Nations League fixtures have been added on to the end of a long season of club football, with players of all countries showing tiredness and lack of motivation.
Southgate has rotated his players, trying to manage their workload and it was by no means a full strength team at Molineux — whereas Hungary, sensing the chance to make history, had their best side out and certainly didn’t lack motivation.
The priority for Southgate and England is November’s World Cup in Qatar, not the relatively minor Nations League. However, the angry response of fans in Wolverhampton, who chanted “you don’t know what you are doing” at the England boss, reflects a broader unease about the team under his charge.
Even during the run to the Euro final, critics argued his team selection and tactics were overly cautious and his limited game management in the showpiece against Italy was questioned, just as it was after the loss to Croatia in the World Cup semi in Russia in 2018. The thrust of the criticism has been that Southgate’s team formation is too defensive and does not harness the attacking flair that is available to him and it was noticeable that he was quick to highlight how a more positive approach later in the Hungary game had backfired.
“We made changes that gave us a little bit more of an attacking impetus but then we were a little bit more open as well and, in the end, you’re pushing and we’ve got so many attacking players on the pitch that we left ourselves wide open,” he said.
The manager retains the full support of his employers, the Football Association, and unlike many of his predecessors he has cultivated a positive relationship with the media.
But how he must wish for the kind of praise being heaped upon the new coach and captain of the cricket team.
“The timid England, scared of failure, has disappeared just two Test matches into the new regime,” wrote former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan in the Telegraph. “We know the Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes combination have ripped off the shackles. It is the same team, more or less, but they have been freed up and it has totally changed their psychology,” he added.
The extended football season is finally over and as he plans his summer break, perhaps Southgate will consider a day or two at the cricket.
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