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An Impossible Man

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***

 

The England football teams returned to training at St George's Park on the morning of Monday 31 August. Mark Catterall and his coaches had all arrived roughly half an hour ahead of their senior players.

 

As the coaches changed into their kit in the recently-rechristened Chris Ramsey Changing Room, assistant manager Michael Burke said, "Big day, ain't it, lads?"

 

"It's the best day of the year, transfer deadline day," David Platt nodded. "I hear that Leicester City are signing Galatasaray's Serbian defender Nikola Milenkovic for £8.25million. And the word in Germany is that Bayern Munich are preparing an offer of around €35million for the Mainz winger Levin Öztunali. I can hardly contain my interest."

 

"Neither can I," Burke replied, rather unenthusiastically.

 

New tactical coach Tony Adams said, "I'll tell you about the best deadline-day deal I ever did. Theofanis Gekas, from Bayer Leverkusen, on loan for five months. Top-class striker, great man as well. Yeah, Portsmouth sacked me the very next week, and Gekas hardly got a chance afterwards, but believe me; if I'd stayed, that lad could've been just as great as Benjani was."

 

After a rather awkward silence, Platt suggested a change of subject, asking, "You now have to pay for parking around here! What's all that about?"

 

Catterall said, "The FA have some money problems, and they're just trying to make as much as they can. Can't say I blame them for doing it. Besides, we can more than afford it."

 

Adams argued, "Yeah, but it's still a f***ing liberty, ain't it? 10 quid an hour? Parking in London don't cost nowhere near that much!"

 

Platt nodded, "I agree, Tony. It's like when the BBC put a paywall on their website the other week."

 

"You're not missing much, Dave," Burke said. "A lot of BBC articles nowadays look like they were written by schoolkids who've watched too much ITV."

 

The coaches and players convened at one of the pitches at 9:00am to begin training. Catterall told his charges beforehand, "Okay, you lot. What happened at Wembley two months ago is now in the history books. From today, everything we do right here at St George's will be geared towards qualifying for the UEFA Nations League play-offs and then the World Cup. There are two big prizes at stake, and we've got every chance of challenging for honours.

 

"There've been a few changes since we last met. Some old friends have moved on, and we've brought in a few new faces to replace them..."

 

"Though one of them faces ain't exactly new, ain't it?" Burke quipped, prompting Adams to chuckle.

 

Uncapped Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford asked Adams, "You're that actor fella, aren't you? Jimmy Nail? We Mackems don't like Geordies too much... but I s'pose you're alright."

 

Adams laughed again, "I'm from Dagenham, actually, which is quite a way from Newcastle!"

 

Catterall explained, "I don't think many of you lads will remember Tony Adams, but let me tell you he's one of the greatest defenders this country has ever produced. He played at four major tournaments for England, and he spent more than two decades at Arsenal, winning the Double - twice."

 

"Legend," was the simple reply from Arsenal playmaker Jack Wilshere.

 

Catterall then stated, "And in terms of the squad, we've got a couple of rookies with us. Jordan Pickford's been in the squad a couple of times before without playing, but this is Lewis Cook's first time, so I hope you more experienced players can make him feel welcome."

 

"We'll make him feel right at home, boss," captain Jordan Henderson said as he put his right hand on the young AFC Bournemouth midfielder's left shoulder.

 

Wilshere then remarked, in some jest, "Don't you get too comfy, though, Cooky! We don't want you taking our places in the team!"

 

Catterall nodded, "Alright, lads. I shan't keep you waiting much longer, so let's get cracking!"

 

Training then got underway. In the second half of the two-hour session, Catterall and Platt instructed the team through a series of corner routines. Catterall reckoned that England's next opponents Austria would be particularly threatening from set-pieces, so he wanted his team to be ready for any danger they might pose in Vienna.

 

One routine began with James Ward-Prowse floating an inswinger into the box. Brendan Galloway flicked it on to their team-mate Wilshere on the edge of the six-yard box. Wilshere leapt up to try and head the ball home, only for opponent Cook to beat him in an aerial duel.

 

As Wilshere dropped back to the turf, Cook's right elbow accidently caught him in the neck, and he collapsed in agony.

 

"Okay, calm down," Catterall called out, as the England medical team rushed onto the pitch. "You alright, Jack?"

 

"HOW DO YOU THINK I AM?"

 

Head physio David Fevre told Wilshere, "Try not to move your neck, Jack. Keep very still, please."

 

While the medical team assessed and treated Wilshere, a distraught Cook worried, "Oh God. I'm so sorry. He ain't broken his neck, has he?"

 

Henderson said, "I ain't no doctor, but if you'd broken Jack's neck, he'd probably be out cold right now."

 

"It ain't your fault, Cooky," Galloway reassured him. "It was a fair challenge, and sometimes accidents can happen."

 

Henderson was slightly more honest, telling Cook, "I understand you were chomping at the bit and trying to impress the gaffer, mate. Maybe you were a bit too enthusiastic. Perhaps you need to relax more, be more natural. We don't want something like this happening again, do we?"

 

"I guess you're right," Cook nodded. "You know I was only trying to do my best, but yeah, I'll take that on board from now on."

 

"Yeah, you'll learn, mate. We've all had our first days, and we've all needed time to settle."

 

Wilshere underwent a scan later that day. Although the 28-year-old was found not to have broken any bones, as initially feared, he had strained some soft tissue in his neck. The England team doctor recommended that Wilshere rested for at least 10 days, which meant he had to withdraw from the squad.

 

With Wilshere out, Catterall needed to call up another midfielder for the Nations League match against Austria and the subsequent friendly in Portugal. He opted to promote from within the national set-up, giving a chance to another of the country's best Under-21s talents.

 

Callum Gribbin was a gifted playmaker who had just agreed to rejoin Norwich City on loan from Manchester United for a second season. The 21-year-old Salfordian's first campaign at Carrow Road had seen him produce assists galore and pick up the prestigious PFA Young Player of the Year award.

 

It was no wonder, then, that many pundits had tipped Gribbin to become Wilshere's long-term successor with the Three Lions. He would take the latter's place on an interim basis at least, leaving a vacany in David Byrne's Under-21s squad.

 

20-year-old Leicester City midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White had won just one cap at Under-21s level thus far, featuring in the Young Lions' 3-1 away victory over Georgia last November. Gibbs-White was left out of the next couple of squads, but Gribbin's promotion had given a second chance to a raw creative talent who had recently begun a five-month loan stint at League One outfit Sheffield United.

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***

 

England's senior team flew out to Austria on the morning of 3 September, ahead of their opening UEFA Nations League match the following evening. While the players were settling into their hotel in Vienna, manager Mark Catterall got down to some other business.

 

The Under-21s and Under-19s were each playing matches against Greece, on either side of the Pennines. Catterall's main concern regarded the higher age group, who were facing the Galanolefki in a European Championship qualifier in Manchester. He would follow their progress remotely from his laptop.

 

Catterall would also have one eye on events at Doncaster Rovers' Keepmoat Stadium. The Under-19s began their reign as European champions by welcoming Greece to South Yorkshire for a friendly international. For the Greeks, this was the start of their preparations for the 2021 UEFA European Under-19s Championship, which they would have the honour of hosting in July.

 

The youngest player amongst a host of England debutants was the 16-year-old Hull City left-winger Paul Hancock. He got his international career off to a fantastic start, exchanging passes with fellow rookie Anthony Hayward before the Arsenal striker volleyed in his return centre to open the scoring. Not even five minutes had been played, and already the Young Lions were 1-0 up.

 

Five minutes after his assist, Hancock could have followed it up with a goal. Swansea City forward Owen Hibbs' powerful strike took a heavy deflection off Greece right-back Nikiforos Bikiaris and fell fortuitously towards Hancock at the far post. In the end, though, the Yorkshireman's shot was easily caught by Ilias Tiktapanidis in the Greek goal.

 

Tiktapanidis would produce a couple more saves in the 15th and 23rd minutes from England's attacking midfielder Petros Mavros, who was of Greek Cypriot origin. The visiting keeper was next tested on 26 minutes by a vicious strike from Hayward, which he diverted behind.

 

England failed to convert their clear dominance into a larger half-time lead than 1-0. More frustration would come in the 51st minute, after captain Stephen Nugent's long clearance sent Hayward through on goal. The London-born 18-year-old used his explosive pace to get beyond Greek centre-halves Stathis Goudelis and Erand Canaj, but his finish badly lacked accuracy.

 

A minute later, Greece midfielder Antonis Antoniou's long ball forward caused chaos on the edge of the England area. Nugent, his goalkeeper Josh Vokes, and striker Giannis Fragos all collided with each other as they tried to get to the ball, which went loose. Nikos Gotsoulias got to it first, but the Galanolefki left-winger's long-range punt drifted wide of a gaping target.

 

Having almost gifted their opponents an equaliser, England knuckled down and looked to stretch their lead. In the 58th minute, Hayward evaded the Greek defence to receive another sumptuous long pass, this time from his Arsenal team-mate Tommy Miles. Hayward fired past the onrushing Tiktapanidis, and the advantage was doubled to 2-0.

 

Tiktapanidis was swiftly replaced in Greece's goal by Lefteris Ntalakas, who showed promise when he caught a strike from England midfielder Ben Logan in the 61st minute. Ntalakas' clean sheet didn't last, as Hayward beat him a minute later from Ollie Elmes' right-wing cross. Hayward would then leave the pitch, having completed his Under-19s international debut with an excellent hat-trick.

 

At 3-0 up, the Young Lions then started to waver. Leeds United defender Ray Butterfield - on loan at Oxford United - would pay the price for a rushed clearance in the 65th minute. Greece midfielder Dimitris Gegas volleyed it against the crossbar, and frontman Charalabos Kotsalas converted the rebound to restore some respectability to the visitors' part of the scoreline.

 

England sought a quick response through Hayward's replacement Willie Field, whose fine scoring form on loan for Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship had prompted speculation of an impending promotion to the national Under-21s. The Liverpool prospect couldn't quite hit top form here, though. A host of free-kicks from Field went to waste, with his best effort in the 84th minute being tipped behind by Ntalakas.

 

Greece hadn't been finished off, and an excellent breakaway move in the 88th minute suggested that they could perhaps secure a draw. Gotsoulias's left-wing centre found the feet of full-back Giannis Pappas, who took the ball upfield before floating a delightful 25-yarder into the far corner of the England net. It was undoubtedly the most impressive of the six goals those spectators at the Keepmoat would witness.

 

Much to the home supporters' relief, the final goal did not go Greece's way. Christian Smith's excellent injury-time lob into the Greek box found his fellow England midfielder Darren Bennett. Ntalakas pushed Bennett's strike away, but only to West Ham United forward Andre Forbes, whose volley wrapped up a 4-2 win.

 

3 September 2020: Under-19s International - at Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster

England U19s - 4 (Anthony Hayward 5,58,62, Andre Forbes 90+1)

Greece U19s - 2 (Charalabos Kotsalas 65, Giannis Pappas 88)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Josh Vokes (Jackson Stevens); James Brown (Jordan Laing), Stephen Nugent (Joe Mooney), Nick Ward (Ray Butterfield), Luther Davis (Taylor Randall); Ashley Wells (Christian Smith), Tommy Miles (Darren Bennett); Owen Hibbs (Ollie Elmes), Petros Mavros (Ben Logan), Paul Hancock (Andre Forbes); Anthony Hayward (Willie Field).

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***

 

Manchester City did not usually allow international matches to be staged at the Etihad Stadium. However, the Citizens made an exception for the Under-21s when they faced a potentially defining European Championship qualifier.

 

Victory over Greece would send England four points clear of their main rivals for 2nd place in Group 8. With the Young Lions widely expected to take maximum points from their final three pool fixtures, they would surely be bang on course to reach the qualifying play-offs. Top spot - and automatic qualification for the finals in Italy - looked to be out of reach unless leaders Portugal had a couple of slip-ups.

 

On the other hand, Greece would leapfrog England into 2nd if they came out on top. Antonis Nikopolidis' side had restricted the Young Lions to just one goal in their previous meeting in Irakleio 12 months prior, so a shock result was perhaps not that unlikely.

 

Mark Catterall gave a long-awaited first Under-21s cap to the West Bromwich Albion defender Alistair Rattray, a year after he had first named him in the squad. There was also only a second cap for Leicester City midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White, who hadn't even been part of this squad prior to Callum Gribbin's unexpected promotion to the senior set-up.

 

Gibbs-White - who'd recently joined League One Sheffield United on a five-month loan - justified his late call-up with a moment of pure brilliance after just nine minutes. The fast-improving Arsenal wing-back Josh Tymon saw his deep cross headed out of the Greek six-yard box by Dimitris Nikolaou. However, Gibbs-White got to the ball just before it dipped out of the penalty area, volleying it emphatically into the top corner.

 

After the home fans celebrated Gibbs-White's wonder strike, they nearly had to applaud a quickfire equaliser. Greece captain Giorgos Xenitidis' 11th-minute corner found the head of centre-half Rafail Papastergiou, who flicked it just the wrong side of the post.

 

There would be further bad luck for Papastergiou's defensive partner Nikolaou in the 15th minute. The Olympiacos stopper's attempt to block a right-wing cross from Reiss Nelson only served to divert the ball beyond goalkeeper Vladimiros Voutsakelis and into the net.

 

Seven minutes after his own goal, Nikolaou showed greater composure to intercept a delivery from Tymon. Gibbs-White once again got to the ball, but there was to be no repeat of his earlier goal, as Voutsakelis produced a simple catch from the West Midlander.

 

Widemen Jonathan Leko and Nelson failed to capitalise on further opportunities for England later on. Their misses could've come back to haunt the Young Lions had Nikolaou kept his header from a Xenitidis free-kick on target in the 36th minute on target. As it was, Will Mannion would remain untroubled in the England goal by the time the match reached its halfway point.

 

The hosts made only one change prior to the restart. Eddie Nketiah had done very little up front in the first half, so the former Arsenal striker - now at Cardiff City - saw his place given to Brighton & Hove Albion's on-loan Liverpool striker Lawrence Warner.

 

England would go 3-0 up just two minutes into the second half... but Warner had nothing to do with it. Right-back Peter Turner exchanged passes with Nelson before crossing into the box. The ball then took another wicked deflection off the luckless Nikolaou's head and beat Voutsakelis for a second own goal!

 

While Nikolaou questioned whether he got out of the right side of the bed that morning, his Greek compatriots became increasingly desperate in their pursuit of some goals. AEK Athens striker Antonis Sofianis was only 17 years old, but he showed incredible confidence in shooting from 35 yards out in the 52nd minute. It was a forlorn attempt, as Mannion got down to smother it easily.

 

England captain Trent Alexander-Arnold - playing in midfield instead of his usual right-back role - had a long-range attempt of his own in the 68th minute. His piledriver ricocheted off Papastergiou and crept just behind for a corner. Greece again narrowly avoided conceded yet another own goal moments later, when Voutsakelis pushed behind a Nelson cross just before it deflected in off right-back Kostas Tabas.

 

The incredible luck England were getting was disguising their profligacy. For a long time in the match, they rather unusually had more goals to their name than shots on target. That statistic would only be rectified in the final few minutes, when Voutsakelis saved attempts from Trevoh Chalobah and Nelson.

 

Panaitolikos keeper Voutsakelis was one of the better performers in a Greek jersey, but few of the away team's attackers had impressed. The Galanolefki finished with only a single shot on target, from midfielder Mario Vrushaj in the 78th minute. Mannion made simple work of it to keep the Greeks stuck on 'nil'.

 

England's 3-0 win put clear daylight between themselves and Greece in Group 8. Barring any surprises at the hands of the bottom three, they were set to at least reach the play-offs. However, Portugal's 3-0 win in Macedonia had moved the Esperanças a step closer to locking down that automatic qualifying berth.

 

3 September 2020: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 8 - at Etihad Stadium, Manchester

England U21s - 3 (Morgan Gibbs-White 9, Dimitris Nikolaou og15,og47)

Greece U21s - 0

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Will Mannion; Peter Turner, Alistair Rattray, Trevoh Chalobah, Josh Tymon; Morgan Gibbs-White, Trent Alexander-Arnold (James Errington); Reiss Nelson, Stuart White, Jonathan Leko (Reece Nicholls); Eddie Nketiah (Lawrence Warner).

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***

 

After finishing 3rd at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and 2nd at UEFA Euro 2020, England were widely regarded as one of international football's top teams. They were now considered by many to be amongst the favourites to win the 2020/2021 UEFA Nations League.

 

England had been paired into Group 2 of Division A alongside Austria and Belgium, whom they would play both home and away. If the Three Lions could top their group, they would head into June's Semi Finals with a genuine chance of claiming their first piece of senior silverware for 55 years.

 

Mark Catterall's pursuit of this title began in Vienna against Austria, who had earned promotion from Division B during the competition's inaugural 2018/2019 season. This was England's third visit to the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in 24 months, and this one was likely to be just as gruelling as the previous two.

 

Catterall had always found Austria to be stubborn opponents under their long-serving Swiss coach Marcel Koller. The Burschen's 15th position in the FIFA World Rankings was somewhat respectable compared to England's ranking of 6th.

 

Bayern Munich's David Alaba and Schalke 04's Marcel Sabitzer were once again expected to cause England problems on the left wing. The Three Lions would also have to be wary of the threat posed by Austria's bright young hope Belmin Sabanadzovic. The Bosnian-born 20-year-old was a pacey striker with an excellent scoring record for Red Bull Salzburg, and it would surely only be a matter of time before he carried that form onto the international stage.

 

As far as Catterall was concerned, experience was the order of the day for England's starting line-up. Only goalkeeper Jack Butland possessed fewer than 15 caps. Stoke City's number 1 was featuring for just the 12th time, but an assured display here would help to establish himself as his country's new first-choice custodian in the post-Joe Hart era.

 

Opportunity also knocked for Southampton forward Nathan Redmond, who was handed a first cap in nearly 15 months. It was Redmond who would have England's first real scoring opportunity, though not before a tense opening 10 minutes in which both teams struggled to get up to speed.

 

England started to show a bit more confidence in the 14th minute. Midfielder James Ward-Prowse sprayed Luke Shaw's left-wing centre to Redmond in the Austrian box. The skilful wideman dribbled past Burschen centre-half Aleksandar Dragovic and then tried to drive a shot into the top corner of the net. Alas, it deflected off Dragovic's colleague Kevin Wimmer and went behind for a corner.

 

Three Lions captain Jordan Henderson whipped the corner into the box. Scores of players from both teams went after the delivery, but it was Austria's 19-year-old debutant goalkeeper Martin Alberg who jumped highest to claim it.

 

Alberg - already the first-choice goalkeeper for his Austrian Bundesliga club SV Ried - was tested again in the 20th minute, reacting quickly to push away a fierce strike from Redmond. That was as close as Redmond would come to breaking the deadlock. His next two attempts drifted off target, while his final effort in the 34th minute was blocked by Zlatko Junuzovic.

 

On the other flank, West Ham United's Rolando Aarons was having another of his less impressive performances. The Jamaican-born forward promised much when he controlled a Dele Alli pass close to the penalty area on 31 minutes, but his wayward strike delivered nothing.

 

Austria were once again proving to be a stubborn team - and a very aggressive one to boot. Junuzovic and his midfield partner - and captain - Julian Baumgartlinger would each carry yellow cards into the interval after their respective tackles on England striker Harry Kane, who'd had a quiet first half.

 

Catterall's team hadn't played all that badly in the first half. The Three Lions certainly kept things tight at the back and avoided gifting Austria any chances. They perhaps needed to show a bit more cunning if the Austrian defence was to be breached.

 

The manager's plan to turn his team's dominance into a substantial lead was to change formation. The 4-2-3-1 was replaced with a 4-4-2 diamond, which meant neither Aarons nor Redmond would be back for the second half. Everton centre-half Mason Holgate came on for his third England appearance, while the more experienced Valencia striker Daniel Sturridge moved within one cap of reaching a half-century.

 

Sturridge's next international goal would have seen him match Kane's haul of 28. The ex-Liverpool man - now the oldest player in the England squad at 31 - could have done that upon receiving an excellent cross from Shaw in the 53rd minute. However, under real pressure from Dragovic, Sturridge could only pull it into the side netting.

 

It was also a disappointing start to the second half for Kane, who was caught offside twice. His Tottenham Hotspur team-mates Alli and Eric Dier went for goal just before the hour mark, but both their efforts flew harmlessly over Alberg's bar.

 

Shortly after heading a floated Shaw cross over the bar in the 63rd minute, vice-captain Kane had to step up and lead his country through the final half-hour or so. Henderson had gashed his leg in a rash challenge from erstwhile Liverpool colleague Sabitzer a couple of minutes later. Though Henderson played on for a while longer, Catterall felt that he couldn't risk his captain getting hurt any worse, so he subbed him off after 65 minutes.

 

Replacing Henderson in the midfield diamond was AFC Bournemouth's Lewis Cook - a senior international debutant at 23 years old. The introduction of another member of England's 2019 European Under-21s Championship-winning side gave the Three Lions more energy and passion at an important stage in the match.

 

Just seconds after Cook came on, England could well have taken the lead. Kane picked out Sturridge with a delightful 20-yard lob into the Austrian box, but Alberg showed great determination to push the latter's volley behind.

 

When Sturridge was tripped by Burschen right-back Stefan Lainer after 71 minutes, the Three Lions won what would be a significant free-kick. Ward-Prowse crossed it into the area from the left, and centre-half John Stones got ahead of Austria's target man Michael Gregoritsch to cushion it to Cook. The rookie met the ball with a half-volley that clipped the underside of the crossbar and crashed into the goal, leaving Alberg helpless.

 

More than four years had passed since an England footballer had found the net on his international debut. Cook's stunner, which saw him replace Marcus Rashford as the Three Lions' most recent goalscoring newcomer, immediately endeared the Yorkshireman to the travelling supporters.

 

Koller made a change up front almost immediately, replacing Gregoritsch with Lokomotiv Moscow's Lukas Hinterseer, who had a chance to equalise in the 82nd minute. Unfortunately for the home fans, Hinterseer's strike was blocked by Stones, whose never-say-die approach personified one of England's strongest defensive displays in recent years.

 

Super-sub Cook also did his bit defensively to protect the visitors' lead. He certainly wasn't afraid to fly into his tackles and frustrate Austria's attackers. Cook did overstep the mark in the 88th minute, when he tripped Sabitzer and collected a booking, but that was just about the only mistake he made on his international bow.

 

Butland didn't have a great deal to do until the final few seconds of normal time. That was when he tipped behind a low drive from Austrian substitute Deni Alar, who'd replaced a surprisingly quiet Sabanadzovic early in the half. Junuzovic's subsequent corner was headed over by Wimmer, and the Burschen would be left disappointed in their pursuit of a late leveller.

 

England immediately climbed to the top of Group 2, albeit with Belgium still to get their campaign underway. The world champions would host Austria four days later, in a match that the Burschen realistically had to try and get a result from if they were to avoid relegation back to Division B. Meanwhile, the Three Lions could head off to Portugal for a friendly reunion with the team who'd denied them European glory just two months earlier.

 

4 September 2020: UEFA Nations League Division A Group 2 - at Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna

Austria - 0

England - 1 (Lewis Cook 72)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Jack Butland; Nathaniel Clyne, Eric Dier, John Stones, Luke Shaw; James Ward-Prowse, Jordan Henderson (Lewis Cook); Rolando Aarons (Mason Holgate), Dele Alli, Nathan Redmond (Daniel Sturridge); Harry Kane. BOOKED: Cook 88.

 

"I'm proud of how the lads played tonight," Catterall said to ITV reporter Gabriel Clarke at full-time. "They showed tremendous fighting spirit and kept their heads, even when Austria were throwing everything at them. This was always going to be a difficult game, so I'm obviously delighted with the win and the clean sheet."

 

"And it was a debut to remember for Lewis Cook."

 

"Yes, he had an excellent game after coming off the bench showed great composure to take the chance when it came his way. I've known Lewis and watched him develop since he was playing for the Under-17s way back in 2013, and I always thought he would go all the way to the top if he put his mind to it. I hope that he takes huge confidence from this and takes his game to the next level now."

 

"So it's Portugal next for you, in a rematch of the Euro Final. What are your thoughts going into that match?

 

Catterall smiled, "You're probably wanting to ask if I'm looking for revenge, but to tell you the truth, I'm not. As far as I'm concerned, this is a chance to test out our less experienced players against a top-class team in an intimate but intimidating setting. I'll be looking for them to show me that they can be involved in this England squad for the World Cup qualifiers and beyond."

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***

 

England had one final away game in Group 8 of the 2021 UEFA European Under-21s Championship qualifiers. If David Byrne's side could see off table-proppers Macedonia in Skopje, they would head into their closing home matches against Albania and Georgia in October almost certain of a top-two finish.

 

As always, Mark Catterall would be keeping track of his Young Lions' progress from afar. He would relay his instructions to head coach Ledley King from the senior team's hotel in Leiria, where they were preparing to face Portugal.

 

England's starting XI included a couple of Under-21s debutants, both of whom had been key components of the team that had won the European Under-19s Championship earlier in the year. Left-back Ted Lapslie and left-winger Charles Ameobi were both on Arsenal's books, though they were now out on loan at Watford and Huddersfield Town respectively. Aged only 18, Lapslie was young enough to be eligible not just for the upcoming 2021 championships in Italy, but also the subsequent 2023 and 2025 tournaments.

 

A comfortable win was expected from the Young Lions. However, it was the Red Lions who almost shook the game up with a goal in the sixth minute.

 

After catching an early free-kick from Lawrence Warner, Macedonia goalkeeper Goran Stojanovski pumped the ball long into England's half. Dragan Mirceski then flicked it into the path of fellow striker Visar Osmani. The 17-year-old, who played in national icon Goran Pandev's academy back home, glided past English defender Alistair Rattray and had only goalkeeper Will Mannion to beat. Osmani panicked at the final moment, firing his shot well wide.

 

There was further cause for concern for the England in the 11th minute. Queens Park Rangers playmaker Sam Field suddenly pulled up with a suspected hamstring injury, and it was quickly decided that he should come off. Sheffield Wednesday's Ben Sheaf came on in his place.

 

Three minutes later, though, a couple of Brighton & Hove Albion stars combined to get England back on track. Winger Jonathan Leko broke into the Macedonian penalty area and shook off the presence of home wing-back Zlatko Petreski before laying the ball off to Warner. The on-loan Liverpool striker lashed in a simple finish, and the Young Lions had opened the scoring.

 

Macedonia defended doggedly to keep their deficit at a single goal. England struggled to break through their cautious 3-5-2 again in the first half, though they almost doubled their lead through a stroke of luck in the 36th minute.

 

The hosts' midfield aggressor Florian Dervishi - aged only 18, but already capped three times by the senior team - tried to hack away a deflected Lapslie cross. However, Lapslie pushed forward to deflect Dervishi's clearance towards Warner, whose ambitious header towards goal forced Stojanovski into an awkward save.

 

England's other debutant Ameobi tried his luck in the 40th minute, only to see his shot closed down on the edge of the Macedonia box by defender Saso Spasovski. Thanks in large part to Spasovski and his colleagues, the Young Lions would only lead by a single goal at the half.

 

England reverted to a 4-4-2 diamond for the second half, with assist-maker Leko subbed off for defender Trevoh Chalobah. Ameobi joined the erstwhile unaccompanied Warner up front for a while, but the winger didn't prove to be capable of leading the attack.

 

It took the Young Lions half of the second period to create another shot on target. In the 68th minute, attacking midfielder Stuart White laid a fantastic ball forward to Warner, who entered the penalty box before firing tamely at Stojanovski. The Red Lions' goalkeeper would also make light work of a Warner header five minutes later.

 

When England did eventually go 2-0 up on 76 minutes, they had substitute striker Reece Nicholls largely to thank for it. Reading's on-loan Chelsea forward played an excellent centre into the middle of the box for midfielder Joe Rankin-Costello, whose strike took a very slight deflection off defender Andrej Kirovski to beat Stojanovski. This was Rankin-Costello's 13th cap for England Under-21s, but he hadn't scored prior to then.

 

Another Young Lion broke his duck nine minutes from the end. England had been awarded a penalty after Warner's mazy run into the box was halted by a cynical challenge from Dervishi. Captain Trent Alexander-Arnold stepped up, even though he knew full well that his previous 20 caps hadn't yielded any goals. The Liverpool right-back would end his long wait by comfortably driving the spot-kick past Stojanovski.

 

England had taken an unassailable 3-0 lead, though they would be deprived of their clean sheet in the 85th minute. Macedonia's left-back and captain Fatjon Mehmeti flicked Dragan Zerdeski's corner kick across the goalmouth to Spasovski, who found the net with what proved to be his team's only shot on target.

 

Spasovski's goal was the only blot in England's copy book after another comfortable qualifying win - their sixth in eight games. They now needed to win just one of their final two Group 8 qualifiers to ensure that they at least finished in the top two alongside Portugal.

 

Top spot was surely beyond the Young Lions' reach, though. Portugal's 3-1 win over Albania meant that a home win over Georgia would be all the Esperanças required to guarantee qualification with one round to spare.

 

7 September 2020: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Group 8 - at Philip II Arena, Skopje

Macedonia U21s - 1 (Saso Spasovski 85)

England U21s - 3 (Lawrence Warner 14, Joe Rankin-Costello 76, Trent Alexander-Arnold pen81)

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Will Mannion; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Adam Mingay, Alistair Rattray, Ted Lapslie; Sam Field (Ben Sheaf), Joe Rankin-Costello; Jonathan Leko (Trevoh Chalobah), Stuart White, Charles Ameobi (Reece Nicholls); Lawrence Warner.

 

2021 UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 8 (After 8 rounds)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.          Portugal U21s          8     7     1     0     16    3     13    22
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.          England U21s           8     6     1     1     18    6     12    19
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Greece U21s            8     5     0     3     13    6     7     15
4.          Georgia U21s           8     1     3     4     7     13    -6    6
5.          Albania U21s           8     0     3     5     5     15    -10   3
6.          Macedonia U21s         8     0     2     6     3     19    -16   2

 

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***

 

England's last match before they began the defence of their UEFA European Under-19s Championship was likely to severely test their credentials. Belgium had won their last seven matches since inexplicably crashing out at the Qualifying Round of the last tournament, so the Young Lions would have to be wary of a talented team that had completely rebuilt its confidence.

 

Anderlecht's home ground - the Stade Constant Vanden Stock in Brussels - was the venue for this match. Belgium's front two of Ronnie van der Heijden and Fresnel Ekangamene were both on the Paars-wit's books. The Red Devils' most exciting talent, though, came from rival club Gent. Skilful midfield playmaker Emile Janssens had impressed while on loan at Sint-Truiden and was widely being tipped as a potential heir to Kevin De Bruyne.

 

Janssens would come under the spotlight as early as the 12th minute. Almost as soon as Belgium left-back Francesco Martino had powered a throw-in into England's penalty area, his compatriot left-winger Mathieu Holvoet went to ground under pressure from Tommy Miles. The referee ruled that Miles had pulled Holvoet down, issuing the England midfielder with a yellow card after pointing to the spot.

 

Janssens stepped up to take the penalty, which he confidently drove down the middle. What he didn't count on was the Young Lions' goalkeeper Josh Vokes confidently standing his ground, allowing him to push the strike wide.

 

Vokes would produce another magnificent save for the visitors in the 27th minute. The resilient Tottenham Hotspur prospect showed great agility to get to a blistering long-distance effort from Belgium's right-winger Thom Berends.

 

Home goalie Grace Lusamba impressed in the 29th minute by denying Petros Mavros after the England playmaker had burst through on goal. A minute later, though, Lusamba was helplessly beaten by a fantastic header from the in-form Anthony Hayward. The Arsenal youth product and Charlton Athletic loanee flicked Ollie Elmes' right-wing cross in off the crossbar for his fourth goal in two Under-19s caps.

 

Elmes caused Lusamba further problems on 39 minutes with another difficult cross, which the Club Brugge keeper somehow turned over his crossbar before it could fly into the top corner. Lusamba seemed to hurt his wrist in making that save, and he would be substituted at half-time.

 

Belgium's substitute keeper Seppe Swinnen would continue where Lusamba left off. Things looked ominous for the hosts in the 53rd minute, when Liverpool's Elmes weighted an excellent ball for Hayward to beat opposing centre-half Stijn Vandaele to. The Londoner had just Swinnen to beat, but it was the latter who prevailed with a great save.

 

Swinnen played for the same Eupen team in the Belgian Pro League as Berends, who helped to liven up the home support four minutes later. It was Berends' square ball from the right that allowed Janssens to dribble past England's substitute midfielder Christian Smith and hammer an unstoppable effort into the top corner. 1-1.

 

England came under further scrutiny in the 66th minute. van der Heijden struck an audacious 30-yarder towards goal, only for Arsenal defender Nick Ward to get in the way and divert it away.

 

The Young Lions started to attack again in the final quarter-hour. Owen Hibbs was twice kept off the scoresheet by Swinnen in the 76th and 78th minute, despite some great set-up play from Willie Field and Smith. There was further disappointment when Ben Logan rushed into a wayward attempt five minutes from the end.

 

A 1-1 draw looked to be a fair result as far as both teams were concerned, though there was to be one final twist two minutes before full-time. Field was holding up an Andre Forbes pass inside the Belgian 'D' when he was upended by Zulte Waregem's burly central defender Stijn Claeys. That prompted the referee to award England a free-kick very close to goal.

 

Up stepped Manchester City defender Joe Mooney - a free-kick practitioner who relished these situations. He demonstrated his prowess when curling the ball over the Belgian wall and into the 'postage stamp' of the goal. Mooney had snatched a late winner for the Young Lions, and the Red Devils' fine run of form was at an end.

 

7 September 2020: Under-19s International - at Stade Constant Vanden Stock, Brussels

Belgium U19s - 1 (Emile Janssens 57)

England U19s - 2 (Anthony Hayward 30, Joe Mooney 88)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Josh Vokes (Tom Burnett); Jordan Laing (James Brown), Stephen Nugent (Joe Mooney), Nick Ward (Ray Butterfield), Taylor Randall (Luther Davis); Tommy Miles (Christian Smith), Darren Bennett (Ashley Wells); Ollie Elmes (Owen Hibbs), Petros Mavros (Ben Logan), Paul Hancock (Andre Forbes); Anthony Hayward (Willie Field). BOOKED: Miles 12.

 

A couple of victories had stretched England Under-19s' impressive unbeaten run to 17 consecutive matches. Confidence was high under Ledley King, and they would be widely expected to breeze through the European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Round the following month.

 

The Young Lions had been given a somewhat comfortable draw, being paired with Turkey, Hungary and Lithuania in Group 11. As if that wasn't enough, Ewood Park in Blackburn was chosen as the host venue for all of the group's matches, which would take place between 7 and 11 October.

 

England's passage towards potentially retaining their European title in Greece looked like being an uncharacteristically smooth one.

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***

 

It had been less than two months since Portugal successfully defended the UEFA European Championship, cruelling ending England's dream in a tense Final showdown at Wembley. Now the old foes would do battle again in a less pressurised environment... and this time, it was the Selecção das Quinas who had home advantage.

 

Instead of arranging for this match to be played at Lisbon's Estádio da Luz or Porto's Estádio do Dragão, the Federação Portuguesa de Futebol [FPF] found a rather more intimate venue. The Estádio Municipal de Leiria could only fit a little less than 24,000 spectators, and the FPF perhaps reasoned that playing there would unsettle an England team more used to playing in larger arenas.

 

Fortunately for England, Portugal's former talisman Cristiano Ronaldo - the man whose sensational free-kick decided the Euro 2020 Final - had now retired from international football. The Real Madrid legend would now spend this time of year sunning it up on his luxury mega-yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Head coach Fernando Santos, who had guided the Selecção to successive European crowns as well as 1st place in the FIFA World Rankings, was still in place. The 65-year-old master pragmatist was now building his team around a new generation - headed by Porto playmaker Rúben Neves and Manchester City's new club-record purchase Gonçalo Guedes - with a view to vying for FIFA World Cup glory in 2022.

 

England boss Mark Catterall was also looking to the future if his starting line-up suggested anything. His defence had a youthful Evertonian feel about it. Goalkeeper Freddie Woodman, right-back Calum Chambers and centre-half Mason Holgate all plied their trade for Everton, as had Holgate's partner Brendan Galloway prior to the latter's 2019 transfer to Manchester United. As far as anyone was aware, though, left-back Danny Rose had never pulled on a blue jersey at Goodison Park.

 

Lewis Cook was rewarded for his match-winning debut performance against Austria four days earlier with a first senior international start in midfield. The AFC Bournemouth playmaker would be joined there by captain Jordan Henderson, as well as a fourth Everton player in Ross Barkley.

 

The three-man England attack consisted of Jesse Lingard, Callum Wilson, and their newest half-centurion Daniel Sturridge. Considering the injury problems that had dogged much of Sturridge's career, the 31-year-old Valencia forward had done rather well to reach 50 international caps.

 

Lingard's stop-start England career had been rather eventless thus far, with no goals in his previous six caps. The Celta Vigo forward could've got lucky at the seventh attempt just three minutes after kick-off.

 

After the Three Lions cleared a free-kick from Portugal captain Adrien Silva, Wilson dribbled the ball up towards the right flank and then crossed to Lingard on the edge of the home box. The former Manchester United man struck it on the volley, with a fierce strike crashing back off Rui Patrício's right-hand post before being cleared by Paulo Oliveira.

 

Barkley also went close for England in the fourth minute, firing a free-kick inches over the bar after André Gomes had tripped Cook. Barcelona midfielder Gomes enjoyed the Selecção's first opportunity a minute afterwards, but his header from City left-back Raphaël Guerreiro's cross cleared the England bar.

 

Another Portuguese player with Mancunian connections - Manchester United's attacking midfielder João Mário - blocked another Barkley free-kick on 11 minutes. That was followed by a couple of wasted England corners before Sturridge enjoyed the visitors' best chance yet in the 21st minute. Wilson cut a fantastic ball across to Sturridge, who jinked past Guerreiro before firing a fierce shot into Patrício's hands.

 

Woodman produced his first save for England in the 22nd minute. Galloway's poor interception of an Adrien Silva free-kick was nodded back towards goal by Neves, but Woodman brilliantly caught the header. He also showed great reactions a couple of minutes later to deny 21-year-old Portugal striker Zé Gomes his first senior international goal.

 

Portugal had perhaps gone closest to breaking the deadlock in the opening stages, but it was England who scored first after 29 minutes. Sturridge and Henderson might have no longer been playing for the same club, but they still linked up beautifully when the captain collected a fantastic square ball from his former Liverpool colleague. Henderson then smashed home a screamer - just his fourth international goal in 75 caps.

 

Having fallen behind, Portugal were a tad lucky not to concede again on 39 minutes. A troublesome low cross into the box from Barkley was awkwardly intercepted by Josué. The Shakhtar Donetsk defender just about diverted it behind, though the ball could easily have trickled past Patrício and into the net on another day.

 

England then had some defending to do in injury time, with Portugal's new superstar winger Guedes having a vicious strike deflect off both Chambers and Sturridge. Chambers then tried to create an incisive counter-attacking move, but his attempted cross to Sturridge in the danger area went long and bypassed the far post.

 

Sturridge and Wilson came off at half-time, with Catterall bringing Rolando Aarons and Harry Kane on to try and conjure up a second goal. As it transpired, Barkley and Lingard had the Three Lions' first scoring opportunities following the interval. Neither could find the target.

 

In the 52nd minute, Portugal finally started to show signs of why they were European champions. Adrien Silva's attempted lob to Real Madrid playmaker Gelson Martins was nodded back to him by an unconvincing clearance from Rose. Instead, the Sporting CP midfielder moved the ball out left to Porto's 22-year-old striker Rui Pedro. The one-time Middlesbrough loanee tried his luck, but Woodman just about got enough of his left glove to the shot to divert it away.

 

Gomes and André Silva also wasted early opportunities for the Selecção before their defence came back under pressure. Patrício produced a couple of fine saves before the hour mark to prevent the inconsistent Aarons from bagging a ninth goal in 24 England caps.

 

Then, on 63 minutes, Adrien Silva brilliantly tackled Aarons as the West Ham United forward closed in on goal again. The Portuguese captain pumped the ball forward to namesake André, who then fired it another 35 yards ahead of Rui Pedro. The young attacker was forced into an angle by Holgate and Galloway, but that didn't stop him from trying to get a shot past Woodman. His attempt clipped the side of Galloway's right foot, and that deflection was enough to beat Woodman and restore parity.

 

To his credit, Galloway bounced back quickly after his unfortunate own goal. The centre-back's strong defending helped to restrict Portugal's chances to complete the second-half fightback. The Selecção's cause wasn't helped when Adrien Silva was booked in the 66th minute for a trip on Kane, who would soon be joined on the pitch by his Tottenham team-mates Dele Alli and Eric Dier.

 

With Henderson making way for Dier, Kane once again got a chance to skipper England until full-time. He tried to set a shining example in the 70th minute, exchanging passes with Aarons before having a pot-shot charged down by Rúben Semedo. The Sporting centre-back would come to Portugal's rescue by blocking further shots from Kane and Alli in the 81st and 82nd minutes.

 

Catterall had already made his final substitutions in the 78th minute. Chambers was tiring on the right side of defence, so Liverpool's Nathaniel Clyne replaced him for what little time remained. The England boss also took off Cook after an underwhelming sophomore appearance. Replacing him was Norwich City's on-loan Manchester United midfielder Callum Gribbin, who was given his senior international bow aged 21.

 

Gribbin was anxious to impress early in his England career, taking most of England's corners in the dying moments. None of them were particularly effective, mind, and that allowed Portugal to stay solid defensively and avoid defeat.

 

England were also determined not to lose, with Holgate and Galloway particularly impressive in their backline. Holgate did pick up a yellow card for a trip on Rui Pedro in the 85th minute, but he was otherwise very assured for someone with so little experience in senior internationals.

 

When all was said and done, Catterall had every reason to be satisfied with a 1-1 draw. His team might not have avenged their Wembley heartache, but they had avoided defeat to what was - according to FIFA's rankings, at least - the best team in the world. That boded well for their next match, which just so happened to be against the reigning official world champions.

 

8 September 2020: International Friendly - at Estádio Municipal de Leiria, Leiria

Portugal - 1 (Brendan Galloway og63)

England - 1 (Jordan Henderson 29)

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-1-2-2-1): Freddie Woodman; Calum Chambers (Nathaniel Clyne), Mason Holgate, Brendan Galloway, Danny Rose; Jordan Henderson (Eric Dier); Lewis Cook (Callum Gribbin), Ross Barkley (Dele Alli); Daniel Sturridge (Rolando Aarons), Jesse Lingard; Callum Wilson (Harry Kane). BOOKED: Holgate 85.

 

While that match was taking place, Belgium were facing Austria in the second match of Division A Group 2 in the UEFA Nations League. As expected, the World Cup holders emerged comfortable 3-1 victors in Brussels, with Chelsea forwards Charly Musonda and Hicham Bennouna amongst the scorers.

 

England and Belgium would meet at Wembley on 9 October, with the victors set to take control of the group and move a step closer towards qualifying for the Nations League Semi Finals.

 

2020/2021 UEFA Nations League Division A Group 2 (After 2 rounds)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.          Belgium                1     1     0     0     3     1     2     3
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.          England                1     1     0     0     1     0     1     3
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Austria                2     0     0     2     1     4     -3    0

 

Edited by CFuller

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Chapter 43 - The Ball Is In His Court

 

The trial of The Sun's chief football writer Russell Whiteman commenced on 14 September 2020, at the Old Bailey criminal court in central London. The 54-year-old has been charged with two breaches of the Disinformation and Propaganda Act, popularly known as the 'Fake News Act', and one charge of perverting the course of justice.

 

Whiteman was said to have falsely claimed in a story published by The Times in 2013 that his father Sir Anthony had committed sexual abuse on an eight-year-old girl during the 1990s. More recently, he had been accused of libel after claiming that England manager Mark Catterall had made racist remarks during an interview.

 

Catterall was amongst the prosecution's key witnesses during the second week of the trial, giving his evidence on Wednesday 23 September. He was accompanied in court by FA chief executive David Whiteman, who had himself given evidence against his nephew earlier on.

 

As he waited to be called into the court, Catterall admitted, "I'm in two minds right now, David. I'm not sure whether I should go through with this."

 

David asked, "Why ever would you say that, Mr Catterall?"

 

"I'm still thinking about what you and your son found out over the summer... about Michael Love possibly being behind all this."

 

"I myself have experienced a profound sense of uncertainty with regards to this case. On reflection, I came to believe that Russell's actions against his late father - my brother - were utterly beyond acceptance, and that justice was required to be served."

 

"Did you tell them about Michael?"

 

David shook his head. "I did not feel that was necessary. In spite of Christopher's revelations, I personally considered the connections to Mr Love to be more of a theory than compelling evidence of guilt."

 

"So you believe it was Russell who made it all up?"

 

"I would not be entirely surprised if that was indeed so."

 

Catterall was then called into court. David offered him a firm handshake and told him, "Whichever course of action you undertake, Mr Catterall, you can be certain that I will be supportive."

 

Catterall took a gulp as he was led into the witness box, where he was handed a Bible by the court registrar. He then repeated the witness oath after the registrar, "I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," before giving his evidence.

 

During Catterall's examination by the prosecution, the court was played a recording of an interview conducted between Catterall and Russell Whiteman a year earlier. Catterall had recorded it using a mobile phone hidden inside a drawer at his desk, hence the sound quality was not particularly great. Even so, the recording clearly contradicted what Russell had written in that inflammatory Sun article which had labelled him "a racist".

 

There was a noticeable hush across the room once the recording had finished. Chief prosecutor Amber Price - a formidable, flame-haired Black Country woman in her mid-30s - stated afterwards, "I believe it would be utter fallacy to claim that Mr Whiteman's account of the interview with Mr Catterall was truthful."

 

Catterall felt a substantial weight lift from his shoulders as he left the witness box for lunch at midday. Upon his return half an hour, though, he would be cross-examined by Russell's defence lawyers. Chief among them was Richard Richmond - an unflappable upper-class gentleman in his early 50s who wore a greying Chevron moustache.

 

"Mr Catterall," Richmond began. "As a top-level sports coach who is renowned for being forthright, why would you feel the need to record your own interviews?"

 

Catterall said, "I don't normally record interviews, but for this one-on-one, I just wanted to cover my own back. I wanted to make sure Mr Whiteman did not try to take my words out of context, and that if he did, I would have evidence to prove otherwise."

 

"But why Mr Whiteman specifically?"

 

"I've had a few run-ins with him in the past. Also, as a general rule, I don't trust anyone who works for The Sun... or any other media outlet run by News UK, for that matter."

 

"Would it be wrong to claim that you possessed a vendetta against Mr Whiteman and/or The Sun, in that case?"

 

A perplexed Catterall turned to Price, who wore a similar bemused look on her face. He then stared back at Richmond and said, "I'd hardly say I had a vendetta against them."

 

"Even after the newspaper in question claimed in an article dated 4 April 2006 that Mark Catterall was a 'disgraced love rat' who had cheated on the mother of his five-year-old daughter with a secretary who worked at the football club he played for?"

 

Catterall shook his face angrily as Richmond continued, "Would it also be fair to say, Mr Catterall, that integrity has never been your strongest suit? To put it another way, is it true that yourself and a colleague of yours once plied one of your players with Russian vodka, because you suspected him of being a communist?"

 

Catterall looked around the courtroom with more puzzlement and asked, "Where'd you get that from?"

 

Price politely objected, "Your Honour, I must object to my learned friend's line of questioning."

 

The elderly presiding judge - Lady Justice Foulkes - concurred with Price, stating, "Mr Richmond, I hardly believe your line of questioning towards Mr Catterall is appropriate. Please return to examining the evidence put forward by Mr Catterall."

 

"My apologies, Your Honour," Richmond said. He then continued, "On the recording in question, Mr Catterall, would it not be unfair to suggest that you acted with some hostility towards Mr Whiteman?"

 

"As I've said, I don't particularly like being in Russell Whiteman's company. Whenever he's interviewed me for The Sun, he's been obnoxious, calculating, aggressive, and desperate to blow even the tiniest issue out of proportion just to make me look bad."

 

"Aggressive, you say? That does sound awfully rich coming from you, if I might say so, Mr Catterall. During the recording, you referred to my client as, and I quote, 'an English Defence League apologist'. Considering that Mr Whiteman is not - and has never been - affiliated to the organisation in question, your comment comes across as slanderous, wouldn't you admit?"

 

Catterall stated, "It was more a criticism of Russell's employers as far-right and jingoistic than of Russell himself. I thought it was ironic that he and his employers had criticised me for selecting only two black players for the England Under-19s squad, when they have published several articles about players like Raheem Sterling that many people would say was thinly-veiled racism."

 

"What was your excuse for selecting only two black players for that England team?"

 

"It was not an excuse; it was undeniably true that working-class, ethnic-minority teenage boys had effectively turned away from organised football because they could not afford to play. The dearth of ethnic minorities at that age group was a by-product of the Tory government trying to squeeze as much money out of the poor as they could."

 

"A likely story," Richmond scoffed. He later asked, "Mr Catterall, what is your relationship with David Whiteman?"

 

Catterall said, "He is the chief executive of the Football Association, whom I work for. I have been a colleague of his for just over four years, and we have a very strong working relationship."

 

"Has David Whiteman ever discussed with you the circumstances which led to the deterioration of his relationship with his nephew Russell Whiteman?"

 

"He was very reluctant to at first, but he eventually told me about a year ago. When I heard that Russell had apparently accused his father Anthony of sexually abusing a little girl, I was disgusted."

 

"I see. It's not entirely implausible, though, that you and David Whiteman could have concocted the whole affair to sully Russell Whiteman's reputation. After all, the prosecution has yet to put forward any solid evidence that my client was behind that story published in The Times which accused Sir Anthony Whiteman of historic sexual offences."

 

"I don't think it's fair to accuse me and David of making the whole thing up," Catterall growled. He then took a sip of water before continuing, "I do, though, think that Russell weren't behind that article."

 

Russell raised his eyebrows and smirked in the dock as Richmond asked, "Who do you believe was involved, then?"

 

"Michael Love. He's the deputy editor of The Sun, and he was working at The Times when the stuff about Sir Anthony came out."

 

"And why would you suspect that, do tell?"

 

Catterall said, "David Whiteman and his son Christopher spoke to me about this about a month or so ago. Christopher was looking into this whole Russell thing, and he found these links to the Love family. Michael is an old friend of the current Chancellor, and his daughter Juno was the MP who brought up this Fake News Act in the first place.

 

"Anyway, since Juno's new law came into effect, about 20 right-wing jurnos who worked with Michael Love - including Russell - have been arrested and charged with spreading fake news. It can't be more than just coincidence, surely?"

 

Richmond let out a mild chuckle. "Mr Catterall, it appears you might have done a sudden about-turn and are now attempting to give evidence for the defence!"

 

Catterall stuttered, "I'm... I'm just concerned that there might be a miscarriage of justice going on as we speak."

 

"Do you or do you NOT believe Russell Whiteman is guilty of the charges he is facing?"

 

Catterall let out a large sigh and groaned, "I DON'T KNOW!" He then took a deep breath before admitting, "To be honest, I don't know either way. There are... there are too many questions I just don't have the answers to."

 

Price buried her head into her hands in despair. Meanwhile, Richmond turned towards the jury and said, "So there we have it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. If Mark Catterall does not know whose side he is on, how can anyone possibly claim that his evidence is in any way reliable? I would put it to you that Mr Catterall is not a credible witness in this case and that his evidence should not be taken into account when you deliberate your verdict."

 

Catterall was in despair as he left the court that afternoon, with David by his side. The wily administrator said, "I would not be especially hard on oneself if I was in your unenviable position, Mr Catterall. Richard Richmond is an extremely cunning man who has acquired a reputation as one of the pre-eminent barristers in the British judicial system."

 

Catterall shook his head. "I think I tried to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted Russell to face justice for the way he acted towards me, but I also wanted to... shine a spotlight on this corruption that seems to be going on."

 

"That is indeed an impossibility."

 

"What was that book you told me about when we first talked about Russell and Anthony? The one by Chester Arthur, or whoever that bloke was."

 

"Why, it was 'The Man Who Knew Too Much', written by GK Chesterton. Chester Arthur was the 21st President of the United States of America."

 

"Yeah. I kinda feel like him right now. Not President Arthur, obviously."

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***

 

Mark Catterall's appearance in court to testify against Russell Whiteman had backfired. Having essentially been labelled an unreliable witness by defence lawyer Richard Richmond, the England boss was now fair game as far as the press were concerned.

 

The front-page on the following day's edition of the Daily Mirror read "CURIOSITY KILLED THE CATT", while the Daily Express' website claimed, "Mark Catterall WHITE-WASHED in biggest DEFEAT yet". The Daily Telegraph suggested that Catterall "paradoxically knew too much and also knew too little" to offer compelling evidence against Whiteman.

 

The harshest criticism of Catterall came from - surprise, surprise - The Sun. He had attempted to implicate their deputy editor Michael Love in the crimes that their chief football writer Whiteman was accused of committing.

 

"UNRELIABLE, UNBELIEVABLE, UNTENABLE" was the damning headline on its front page the next day. The Sun's editor-in-chief wrote that Catterall's testimony - along with allegations made by Richmond that he had given vodka to an unnamed player - was "evidence enough that his conduct is unacceptable for an England manager".

 

The Sun subsequently launched an online petition, calling on the Football Association to terminate Catterall's contract with immediate effect. Over 20,000 people signed the petition within its first week.

 

However, the FA refused to yield. Chairwoman Angela Ruskin stated, "Mark has our unanimous support at this moment in time. England managers in the past have been allowed to keep their jobs after committing much worse acts, so there's no need for us to satisfy what is a very small minority of reactionaries."

 

Having received a vote of confidence from his employers, Catterall put non-footballing controversies aside to select his next England squad. The Three Lions would play a couple of UEFA Nations League group matches at Wembley in October, with world champions Belgium and dark horses Austria both due to visit London.

 

Catterall would also name an Under-21s team for their final group matches in the European Championship qualifiers. David Byrne's Young Lions would host Albania and then Georgia at Stoke City's Bet365 Stadium as they looked to secure a place in November's Play-Offs. Meanwhile, the Under-19s would officially begin their European title defence with three Qualifying Round matches at Blackburn Rovers' Ewood Park stadium.

 

ENGLAND squad - for matches vs Belgium (H) and Austria (H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Jack Butland              GK                  10/03/1993 (27)  Stoke           12    0     6'5"   14st 13lbs £19.5M  
Jordan Pickford           GK                  07/03/1994 (26)  Sunderland      0     0     6'2"   12st 1lb   £7.5M   
Freddie Woodman           GK                  04/03/1997 (23)  Everton         3     0     6'1"   11st 2lbs  £4.7M   
Calum Chambers            D (RC)              20/01/1995 (25)  Everton         20    0     6'0"   11st 6lbs  £14.75M 
John Stones               D (RC)              28/05/1994 (26)  Man City        48    1     6'2"   12st 3lbs  £34.5M  
Eric Dier                 D (RC), DM, M (C)   15/01/1994 (26)  Tottenham       56    6     6'2"   13st 7lbs  £38M    
Ben Chilwell              D (LC), WB (L)      21/12/1996 (23)  Liverpool       0     0     5'10"  12st 3lbs  £24.5M  
Brendan Galloway          D (LC), DM          17/03/1996 (24)  Man Utd         3     0     6'2"   14st 0lbs  £25.5M  
Lewis Dunk                D (C)               21/11/1991 (28)  Norwich         0     0     6'3"   12st 3lbs  £2.4M   
Nathaniel Clyne           D/WB (R)            05/04/1991 (29)  Liverpool       48    0     5'9"   10st 7lbs  £16M    
Luke Shaw                 D/WB (L)            12/07/1995 (25)  Man Utd         42    2     6'1"   11st 11lbs £37M    
Lewis Cook                DM, M (C)           03/02/1997 (23)  Bournemouth     2     1     5'9"   11st 2lbs  £10.5M  
Jordan Henderson          DM, M (C)           17/06/1990 (30)  Liverpool       75    4     6'0"   10st 7lbs  £15.75M 
Jonjo Shelvey             DM, M/AM (C)        27/02/1992 (28)  Newcastle       7     0     6'1"   13st 0lbs  £16.25M 
Callum Gribbin            M (C), AM (RC)      18/12/1998 (21)  Norwich         1     0     5'11"  11st 13lbs £13.25M 
Nathan Redmond            M/AM (RL), ST (C)   06/03/1994 (26)  Southampton     17    4     5'8"   11st 6lbs  £17.25M 
Jesse Lingard             M/AM (RLC)          15/12/1992 (27)  Celta           7     0     5'6"   10st 3lbs  £17.75M 
Dele Alli                 M/AM (C)            11/04/1996 (24)  Tottenham       60    6     6'1"   12st 1lb   £35M    
Ross Barkley              M/AM (C)            05/12/1993 (26)  Everton         38    4     6'2"   11st 13lbs £30M    
Jack Wilshere             M/AM (C)            01/01/1992 (28)  Arsenal         70    11    5'9"   10st 3lbs  £18.25M 
Daniel Sturridge          AM (C), ST (C)      01/09/1989 (31)  Valencia        50    27    6'0"   12st 6lbs  £6.5M   
Harry Kane                ST (C)              28/07/1993 (27)  Tottenham       58    28    6'3"   13st 0lbs  £35.5M  
Callum Wilson             ST (C)              27/02/1992 (28)  Chelsea         38    12    5'11"  10st 7lbs  £28M    

 

Norwich City had once again surprised many Premier League onlookers, losing just one of their opening six matches to sit in 5th place. The continued overachievement of Mark Hughes' Canaries saw two of their England players picked for the upcoming UEFA Nations League matches.

 

On-loan Manchester United playmaker Callum Gribbin had made his England senior debut in the friendly draw against Portugal, having been called up as an injury replacement. The 21-year-old Salfordian was now in the squad by right, having shown signs of building on his fantastic first season with Norwich.

 

Gribbin's Canaries colleague Lewis Dunk earned a shock first call-up at the age of 28, thanks to some consistently rugged performances in the centre of the defence. Dunk, who'd joined Norwich from hometown club Brighton & Hove Albion in 2019, was selected by Catterall after Mason Holgate broke his ribs whilst in training with Everton.

 

Manchester City's Michael Keane - one of England's most senior central defenders - was still out injured. Keane had sustained a hernia in early September, just days after recovering from a twisted ankle. That meant he would have to wait a while longer to add to his 35 caps.

 

Nearly three years after winning the most recent of his seven England caps, Jonjo Shelvey earned an eyebrow-raising recall. The aggressive Newcastle United playmaker had enjoyed a strong start to the campaign with the mid-table Magpies. That was more than could be said of former regular Danny Drinkwater, who was again overlooked as Leicester City continued to toil in the bottom four.

 

Joining Dunk and Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in line for a maiden England cap was Liverpool left-back Ben Chilwell. The Reds were flying high at the top of the Premier League after six straight wins, with 23-year-old Chilwell ever-present in their defence. His fellow Liverpool full-back Nathaniel Clyne also remained in the national team, though he'd been displaced on the right flank at club level by Giovanni Troupée.

 

Chilwell's call-up meant Tottenham Hotspur's Danny Rose was dropped by Catterall for the first time. There was no room for his team-mate James Ward-Prowse either, as the midfielder had only started two matches for Jaap Stam's Spurs side this term.

 

Rolando Aarons was also absent, though that was not down to Catterall. The enigmatic forward had strained his knee ligaments in West Ham United's EFL Cup Round 3 win at Watford, putting him on the sidelines until November.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-21s squad - for matches vs Albania (H) and Georgia (H)

NAME                      POSITIONS           D.O.B. (AGE)     CLUB            CAPS  GOALS HEIGHT WEIGHT     VALUE
Brian Farrell             GK                  14/02/2001 (19)  Bury            1     0     6'2"   12st 6lbs  £155K   
Will Mannion              GK                  05/05/1998 (22)  Huddersfield    10    0     6'2"   13st 5lbs  £6.75M  
Aaron Ramsdale            GK                  14/05/1998 (22)  Luton           0     0     6'4"   10st 7lbs  £105K   
Alistair Rattray          SW, D (C)           17/02/2000 (20)  West Brom       2     0     5'10"  11st 4lbs  £1.4M   
Peter Turner              D (RC), WB/M (R)    09/03/2001 (19)  Stoke           2     0     5'11"  11st 11lbs £1.3M   
Joe Rankin-Costello       D (RC), M/AM (RLC)  26/07/1999 (21)  Burnley         13    1     5'10"  11st 6lbs  £7.25M  
Ben Sheaf                 D (RC), M/AM (C)    05/02/1998 (22)  Sheff Wed       6     1     6'0"   12st 6lbs  £5.25M  
Adam Mingay               D (C)               19/04/2000 (20)  West Brom       3     0     6'0"   11st 9lbs  £850K   
Reece Oxford              D (C), DM           16/12/1998 (21)  West Ham        13    0     6'3"   11st 11lbs £5M     
Trent Alexander-Arnold    D/WB (R), DM        07/10/1998 (21)  Derby           21    1     5'6"   9st 10lbs  £6.75M  
Josh Tymon                D/M (L)             22/05/1999 (21)  Arsenal         11    0     5'9"   11st 2lbs  £15.75M 
Ryan Sessegnon            D/M/AM (L)          18/05/2000 (20)  Leeds           5     0     5'11"  12st 6lbs  £425K   
Tom Davies                DM, M (C)           30/06/1998 (22)  Watford         26    3     5'10"  11st 0lbs  £7.75M  
Sam Field                 DM, M/AM (C)        08/05/1998 (22)  QPR             13    2     5'10"  12st 1lb   £7.5M   
Jonathan Leko             M (R), AM (RL)      24/04/1999 (21)  Brighton        8     1     6'2"   11st 2lbs  £7.25M  
Calum Wilson              M (L), AM (RLC)     07/04/2001 (19)  QPR             0     0     6'0"   12st 3lbs  £500K   
Jadon Sancho              M (L), AM (LC)      25/03/2000 (20)  Hull            2     0     6'0"   12st 1lb   £675K   
Neil Campbell             M (C), AM (RC)      23/05/2001 (19)  Wolves          5     0     5'10"  11st 4lbs  £3.2M   
Chris Willock             M/AM (LC)           31/01/1998 (22)  Fulham          5     1     5'9"   10st 12lbs £5.5M   
Stuart White              M/AM (C)            12/10/2000 (19)  Newcastle       6     0     5'10"  11st 4lbs  £7.75M  
Lawrence Warner           AM (RC), ST (C)     28/12/2000 (19)  Brighton        6     2     6'0"   12st 6lbs  £12.25M 
Eddie Nketiah             ST (C)              30/05/1999 (21)  Cardiff         10    6     5'10"  11st 6lbs  £6.75M  
Chris Scott               ST (C)              23/01/2001 (19)  Leeds           0     0     5'11"  12st 12lbs £1.4M   

 

There were two new faces in the England squad for the final European Under-21s Championship qualifiers. Arsenal winger Calum Wilson became the latest European Under-19s champion to move up an age group, having started the new season well while on loan with Queens Park Rangers.

 

West Ham United striker Chris Scott was another Under-21s newcomer with prior international experience, though he wasn't involved in the Under-19s' continental victory. A quarter of a way through the Championship season, the Leeds United loanee was the division's joint-top scorer with nine goals. He shared that honour with another English teenager - Sheffield Wednesday's Willie Field, who remained in the Under-19s.

 

Scott's Leeds team-mate Ryan Sessegnon was recalled at left-back. Tom Davies, Jadon Sancho and Chris Willock were also recalled, as were Neil Campbell and Reece Oxford after their recent injury setbacks.

 

The most high-profile player to miss out on this squad was Reiss Nelson. Unfortunately, the prodigious wide attacker had torn a groin muscle while playing for Leicester City in a 3-0 Premier League defeat at Crystal Palace in mid-September.

 

Several other players were dropped, including Chelsea defender Trevoh Chalobah. Watford's on-loan Arsenal full-back Ted Lapslie was temporarily demoted to the Under-19s, so he could take part in their European qualifiers.

 

ENGLAND UNDER-19s squad - for European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Round

GOALKEEPERS: Jackson Stevens (Chelsea), Josh Vokes (Tottenham)

DEFENDERS: James Brown (Liverpool), Ray Butterfield (Oxford), Jordan Laing (Peterborough), Ted Lapslie (Watford), Joe Mooney (Barnsley), Stephen Nugent (Burnley), Nick Ward (Arsenal)

MIDFIELDERS: Darren Bennett (Carlisle), Paul Hancock (Hull), Ben Logan (Charlton), Tommy Miles (Arsenal), Petros Mavros (Hull), Ashley Wells (Reading)

FORWARDS: Ollie Elmes (Liverpool), Willie Field (Sheff Wed), Anthony Hayward (Charlton)

 

The European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Round would see England play out three home matches in five days. Turkey, Hungary and then Lithuania would all visit Ewood Park between 7 and 11 October, as the Young Lions looked to begin their championship defence by getting out of Group 11 safely.

 

Field and Lapslie had each played at the previous European finals, as had goalkeeper Josh Vokes and defenders Joe Mooney and Stephen Nugent.

 

Half a dozen players were dropped from the England side that had participated in September's friendly internationals. Those unfortunate six were Tom Burnett, Luther Davis, Andre Forbes, Owen Hibbs, Taylor Randall and Christian Smith.

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***

 

After a couple of friendly victories, it was time for Ledley King and England's Under-19s to get serious again. For five days from 7 October, Ewood Park in Blackburn would be the Young Lions' home as they kicked off their defence of the European Championship.

 

England were overwhelming favourites to win Qualifying Group 11 and qualify comfortably for the Elite Round. They would face Hungary and Lithuania later in the Qualifying Round, but first off, they would have to renew rivalries with an old foe.

 

England and Turkey had faced each other in the qualifiers for the previous two European Championships at Under-19s level, with the Crescent-Stars always providing strong opposition to the Young Lions. It was the visitors who had the first shot at goal after five minutes, when forward Hüseyin Keskin drove a free-kick over the bar.

 

England were rather luckier with their first attack, which came - rather ironically - in the 13th minute. Star striker Willie Field muscled the ball off Turkey's defensive midfielder Arda Genç and then played a slide-rule pass to Tommy Miles. The Arsenal midfielder would quickly thread the ball forward for Liverpool poacher Ollie Elmes, whose calmly-taken finish left Murat Yilmaz soundly beaten in the Turkish goal.

 

Though the hosts were ahead and expected to stroll to victory, their opponents continued to put up a strong resistance. Genç bravely blocked a vicious free-kick from Field in the 22nd minute after his team-mate Mehmet Sen had fouled England midfielder Darren Bennett.

 

In the 31st minute, another Turkish free-kick provided England with another scare. Gökhan Çelik played a delivery from the right flank inside to Mehmet Çakır. The Schalke 04 midfielder - one of several German-born players in this Turkish team - struck the ball on the half-volley, prompting England keeper Josh Vokes to make a difficult parry.

 

Çakır looked rather less impressive five minutes later, when his attempted long ball was cut out and stroked back into Turkey's half by home defender Nick Ward. Reading midfielder Ashley Wells controlled Ward's pass and dribbled forward before moving it on to Field. Sheffield Wednesday's on-loan Liverpool striker deftly controlled the ball with his back to goal, turned 180 degrees, and then half-volleyed inches over the bar.

 

Field might not have been on fire, but his fellow Anfield youth product Elmes sure was. As first-half injury time began, Ward intercepted a slack ball from Sen and pumped it towards the penalty area. Elmes ran onto the excellent long ball and slipped it past Yilmaz at the keeper's near post for 2-0.

 

Turkey weren't quite out of it yet, mind. Two minutes into the second half, a long punt from Yilmaz found Çakır, who dribbled past England left-back Ted Lapslie and then struck an ambitious 30-yard drive. It got nowhere near the target, but if its objective was to unsettle the Young Lions, it did quite a decent job.

 

Turkey began to enjoy more possession as the second half progressed, and they were soon taking the game to the home side. Defensive midfielder Joe Mooney kept them at bay with some determined blocks, but the Bury loanee's substitution in the 61st minute would be potentially costly for England.

 

Two minutes later, Keskin had a corner delivery cleared away by England's attacking midfield substitute Petros Mavros, but only as far as Kerem Arslan. The FC Augsburg striker moved the ball back out wide to Keskin, whose follow-up cross was volleyed home by Çakır. In truth, Ward and his fellow Young Lions centre-back Stephen Nugent could have done better jobs of attempting to block the shot.

 

With their deficit cut down to a single goal, the momentum was all Turkey's. After 73 minutes, Çakır had his first attempt to not only match Elmes' earlier brace but cancel it. It was brilliantly charged down by Lapslie - one of four Arsenal players who completed the match for England. Lapslie, Ward and Miles were soon joined on the pitch by Anthony Hayward, who replaced Elmes for the closing moments.

 

Hayward was denied a game-clinching third England goal by a fantastic save from Yilmaz on 80 minutes. Just moments before then, it took an excellent catch from Vokes at the other end to prevent Arslan from drawing Turkey level.

 

In the end, Elmes' first-half double would be enough for England to start their title defence with a 2-1 victory. Their next qualifier two days later would be against Hungary, who had defeated Lithuania by the same scoreline.

 

7 October 2020: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Group 11 - at Ewood Park, Blackburn

England U19s - 2 (Ollie Elmes 13,45+1)

Turkey U19s - 1 (Mehmet Çakır 63)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Josh Vokes; James Brown, Stephen Nugent, Nick Ward, Ted Lapslie; Joe Mooney (Ray Butterfield); Ashley Wells, Tommy Miles; Darren Bennett (Petros Mavros); Willie Field, Ollie Elmes (Anthony Hayward).

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***

 

England's bid to retain the UEFA European Under-21s Championship had reached a critical phase. They realistically needed to win their final two qualifiers against Albania and Georgia at the Bet365 Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent to at least reach the play-offs. They still had a slim chance of qualifying automatically, but only if Group 8 leaders Portugal failed to win either of their two remaining matches.

 

Before they could worry about what Portugal were doing in their penultimate qualifier at home to Georgia, England had to do their job and see off Albania. The Kuq e Zinjtë were second-from-bottom of the group, having recorded three draws and five defeats thus far. Anything other than an England win would be an embarrassment to the hosts.

 

England manager Mark Catterall was in the stands watching on as head coach David Byrne led his charges out. Amongst the 11 players Catterall and Byrne had named in their starting line-up was a newcomer to the Under-21s set-up - West Ham United's confident teenage centre-forward Chris Scott, who'd already netted nine Championship goals this season while on loan with Leeds United.

 

The 19-year-old from Somerset took less than five minutes to make an impression. Shortly after Mario Dajsinani had majestically dived to catch a header from England's other striker Lawrence Warner, the Albanian proved unable to keep out the hosts' next attempt. Attacking midfielder Stuart White stroked the ball ahead of Scott, who glided past a couple of defenders before placing it calmly into the far corner of Dajsinani's net.

 

England went into this match with no fewer than eight players at risk of incurring suspensions. One of them was captain Reece Oxford, who got in trouble with the referee when he felled Albana striker Ismet Sinani barely a minute after the opening goal. A yellow card meant that the West Ham United defender would be banned from his country's final qualifier against Georgia.

 

The Young Lions then attacked again on 12 minutes. A rare shot at goal from Oxford's centre-back colleague Adam Mingay was blocked by Albania captain Marash Kumbulla. Moments later, Scott drove a shot narrowly over the crossbar as he sought a debut brace.

 

Scott was again denied a second goal in the 19th minute, with Dajsinani turning a low shot behind just before it could creep in at his right-hand post. His next attempt a couple of minutes later was rather less impressive.

 

Flamboyant midfielder Neil Campbell, who'd missed much of the opening few weeks of Wolverhampton Wanderers' first season back in the Premier League, glided effortlessly past Albania's tough-tackling Endi Morina. He then sliced the defence open to find a narrowly-onside Scott, only for his compatriot to hammer a great chance wide.

 

While there was to be no double for Scott, he did help England increase their advantage six minutes before half-time. Upon latching onto a fantastic weighted pass from the more experienced Tom Davies, the debutant squared the ball into the six-yard box. On the other end was Warner, who got in front of Albania's covering defender Glejdis Ndraxhi to convert his third goal in just seven Under-21s caps.

 

Scott and Warner each missed chances to make it 3-0 to England in the opening minutes of the first period. The significance of those spurned opportunities would be magnified later on, as the Young Lions started to get a bit cocksure.

 

Albania's first chance to get back in the match came after 56 minutes. Pescara right-back Leonardo Maloku whipped a cross in to Sinani, whose header from the edge of the England box almost caught goalkeeper Will Mannion off his guard.

 

Huddersfield Town goalie Mannion was England's only ever-present in the qualifiers, and it was somewhat concerning that he'd only kept three clean sheets in eight matches. That record would change to three in nine after 63 minutes, when he was beaten at his near post by Meritan Shabani's finish from a left-wing delivery by Samir Hysa. The Sandhausen midfielder had pulled Albania to within one goal of parity.

 

The Young Lions needed to restore their two-goal cushion quickly. Substitute midfielder Joe Rankin-Costello tried his luck a minute after Shabani's potential revolutionary goal, but Kumbulla deflected it wide.

 

Albania's resistance would be futile. When Ndraxhi lost concentration in the 71st minute, Warner burst behind him to hunt down a long ball from Campbell. The Brighton & Hove Albion loanee crossed to Newcastle United midfielder White, whose irresistible half-volley capped a superb 'man of the match' display from the Black Country boy.

 

England then brought Alistair Rattray and Chris Willock on for Oxford and Scott to see out the final 20 minutes of this match. Fulham forward Willock, who'd recently left his boyhood club Arsenal for £2.7million, could have added a fourth goal to his team's tally late on. He had no fewer than four chances to do so, but one went wide, another was saved by Dajsinani, and the other two were blocked.

 

As full-time neared, Albania started to seriously lose control of their discipline. They would finish the match on an incredible 26 fouls, though only one of them - Shabani's 86th-minute trip on Watford midfielder Davies - was deemed worthy of even a yellow card.

 

England cruised to a 3-1 win and secured 2nd place in Group 8, but top spot was now beyond their reach. Portugal avoided an upset in Aveiro, defeating Georgia 2-0 to guarantee that they would qualify for the 2021 finals in Italy. The Young Lions' only route to that tournament was via November's play-offs, their presence in which they would potentially secure by beating the Georgians in their last remaining group game.

 

8 October 2020: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 8 - at Bet365 Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent

England U21s - 3 (Chris Scott 5, Lawrence Warner 39, Stuart White 71)

Albania U21s - 1 (Meritan Shabani 63)

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Will Mannion; Peter Turner, Reece Oxford (Alistair Rattray), Adam Mingay, Josh Tymon; Sam Field (Joe Rankin-Costello); Neil Campbell, Tom Davies; Stuart White; Lawrence Warner, Chris Scott (Chris Willock). BOOKED: Oxford 7.

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***

 

Friday 9 October was a big day for England's senior team, as the UEFA Euro 2020 runners-up played host to FIFA World Cup holders Belgium. While Mark Catterall and his charges were travelling from their St George's Park training base to Wembley for their titanic UEFA Nations League tussle, the Under-19s were in action themselves.

 

Ledley King's Young Lions hosted Hungary at Ewood Park in the second match of the European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Round. Both teams had won their opening fixtures in Group 11, and a second victory for either would almost certainly secure their progress to March's Elite Round.

 

Ollie Elmes had taken 13 minutes to get England up and running against Turkey. He shaved seven minutes off that time when facing the Magyars. The Liverpool forward - playing on the right wing - latched onto a fantastic pass from Chelsea midfielder Petros Mavros before driving it emphatically past goalkeeper Szilárd Burucz.

 

Elmes and Mavros had both come through the Milton Keynes Dons youth set-up as schoolboys, as had Ben Logan. The hard-working midfielder - now on loan at Charlton Athletic from Watford - blasted wide a hopeful attempt to increase England's lead in the 11th minute.

 

Logan's Charlton team-mate Anthony Hayward would play a significant role in England going 2-0 up on 13 minutes. The on-loan Arsenal frontman got ahead of Hungarian skipper Gergely Horváth to flick Elmes' left-wing delivery across the six-yard box. Burucz' attempt to claw the header away only served to set up a simple finish for Hull City winger Paul Hancock at the back stick.

 

Hungary pursued an equaliser midway through the first period. Winger Dominik Vass' 21st-minute free-kick clattered off Darren Bennett in the England wall and was subsequently cleared by Hancock. A couple of minutes after that, an ambitious long-distance curler from Magyars striker Ádám Késedi sailed past Jackson Stevens' left-hand post.

 

Normal service resumed after half an hour, with Mavros' free-kick forcing Burucz into a save. Hull's skilful loanee midfielder then delighted the home crowd in the 32nd minute with a spectacular backheel into the box. Team-mate Hancock ran onto it to tuck away his second goal, and England's third, of the afternoon.

 

Hancock was now in hot pursuit of an unlikely hat-trick. The 16-year-old Yorkshireman almost fluked a third goal after 36 minutes, with a cross catching Burucz off his guard before deflecting wide off the crossbar.

 

Hungary were simply unable to cope with England's intensity, and the Young Lions were also drawing them into committing a high number of fouls. Right-back Gergely Sipos was cautioned for a desperate pull on the back of Hancock's shirt just before half-time. Substitute midfielder Alex Sándor also attracted the referee's attention in the 58th minute, collecting a booking for a hefty clash with Mavros.

 

If England were taken aback by Hungary's aggression, it didn't show. Hancock had another hat-trick chance in the 61st minute, but his powerful drive from an Ashley Wells pass was turned behind by Burucz. The 17-year-old Szombathelyi Haladás goalkeeper produced another fantastic save in the 65th minute, showing great agility to tip behind a 20-yard drive from Reading midfielder Wells.

 

Burucz' immense bravery didn't stop the Young Lions from beating him once again after 66 minutes. Bennett dribbled the ball into Hungary's box, and Wells then moved it inside to Mavros via Elmes. Mavros then prodded a simple finish into the far corner, giving England a 4-0 advantage - and an unusual treble of sorts for their Hull-based contingent.

 

Four goals would be all the rampant Young Lions could muster. Hayward was twice kept off the scoresheet by Burucz in the 68th and 71st minutes. Despite scoring four goals in the build-up to the European qualifiers, the Londoner was still awaiting his first competitive international strike.

 

Hungary's misery was compounded by a third yellow card, issued to Horváth for his trip on Elmes in the 73rd minute. The Magyars did try to claw back a consolation goal four minutes later, but their flame-haired 6ft 5in target man Ádám Kornis put too much power into his shot and blazed it comfortably over.

 

The final whistle confirmed that England had made it two wins from two, and their qualification for the Elite Round was confirmed when Turkey defeated Lithuania 2-1 later that evening. While Turkey would now battle Hungary for the second qualifying spot from Group 11, the Young Lions' meeting with the eliminated Lithuanians had been reduced to little more than a dead rubber.

 

9 October 2020: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Group 11 - at Ewood Park, Blackburn

Hungary U19s - 0

England U19s - 4 (Ollie Elmes 6, Paul Hancock 13,32, Petros Mavros 66)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Jackson Stevens; Jordan Laing, Stephen Nugent, Joe Mooney (Nick Ward), Ted Lapslie; Darren Bennett (Tommy Miles), Ben Logan (Ashley Wells); Ollie Elmes, Petros Mavros, Paul Hancock; Anthony Hayward.

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***

 

England had met Belgium on three occasions during the Mark Catterall era - twice in friendlies, and once at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The Three Lions always came away disappointed after putting in admirable displays that ended with them losing by the odd goal.

 

When the two teams came to blows once again at Wembley in October 2020, though, it was England who were rated as favourites. While they had followed up their run to the World Cup Semi Finals by finishing runners-up at UEFA Euro 2020, the Belgians had not lived up to expectations during the continental tournament. They were carpeted out in the Last 16 by Russia, crushing their hopes of a World Cup and European Championship double.

 

Roberto Martínez - the man who had guided the Red Devils to their historic global triumph in 2018 - paid the price for that early Euro exit with his job. Belgium's new head coach was Mircea Rednic - a 58-year-old Romanian who'd spent the last four years managing Belgian Pro League mid-tablers Royal Excel Mouscron (or REM for short).

 

Belgium's players and fans were not exactly 'shiny happy people' after the first two matches of their new era without either Martínez or legendary former captain Vincent Kompany, who'd retired after the Euros. A scrappy friendly win against the Netherlands, and an unconvincing 3-1 UEFA Nations League victory over Austria, arguably belied their still-lofty FIFA World Ranking of 3rd.

 

Belgium now had a chance to prove that they were still in good shape ahead of their World Cup defence. Winning Division A Group 2 of the Nations League at England's expense would be a good start. With both teams having kicked off the group by defeating Austria, whoever prevailed at Wembley would reach the halfway stage firmly on course to qualify for the Semi Finals.

 

Catterall's England were also out to prove a point. The Three Lions' last match at Wembley a little less than three months earlier had seen them blow their big chance to win the Euros on home soil. It was about time they started to put smiles back on their supporters' faces.

 

There were a few eyebrows raised when the England starting XI was named. There was a first start under Catterall for Newcastle United's tenacious playmaker Jonjo Shelvey, who hadn't so much as worn a national team jersey since 2017. Inside-forwards Nathan Redmond and Jesse Lingard were also selected, despite their wildly inconsistent form for the Three Lions.

 

Tottenham Hotspur duo Dele Alli and Eric Dier - both mainstays of the midfield - were not quite fit to start, having played out a gruelling Premier League draw at Norwich City only five days prior. The man who'd scored Norwich's equaliser five minutes from full-time - 21-year-old midfielder Callum Gribbin - was on course to make his competitive England debut if he came off the bench.

 

England's defence - featuring the inexperienced Brendan Galloway in the centre alongside Manchester rival John Stones - was immediately tested by Belgium's two Paris Saint-Germain megastars.

 

Big centre-forward Romelu Lukaku, who'd recently joined PSG from Atlético Madrid for £39.5million, skimmed the side netting after running onto a third-minute through-ball from Manchester City's Yannick Carrasco. Lukaku's new PSG team-mate Eden Hazard went for goal a minute later. However, the Red Devils' captain and most-capped player of all-time fired it well over the crossbar.

 

England had their first opportunity to open the scoring after five minutes via a Jordan Henderson corner. Lone striker Harry Kane knocked it into the path of Lingard, whose left-footed volley crashed against the crossbar. Belgian right-back Thomas Meunier - himself a former PSG player who was now at Fiorentina - expertly removed the danger.

 

Though Redmond pulled wide England's next chance in the seventh minute, the Southampton forward did create a counter-attack for Kane three minutes later. Kane latched onto Redmond's long ball and then turned past defender Leander Dendoncker before sending a tame shot into Thibaut Courtois' hands.

 

Keeping goal for England was Jack Butland, who made another strong case for the vacant number 1 jersey when he tipped over a cross from Roma's box-to-box midfielder Radja Nainggolan in the 15th minute. Butland also demonstrated great agility 10 minutes later to thwart Lukaku, whose next international goal would've been his 40th.

 

Scoring chances for England midway through the first half were scarce, and not very impressive. Courtois easily caught an effort from Redmond in the 24th minute, while Kane struck the side netting four minutes later.

 

The Three Lions' hopes took a dent in the 34th minute, when Lingard appeared to hurt his shin. The Spanish-based former Manchester United forward had to be helped off the pitch to be replaced by a current Old Trafford prospect. Gribbin had shown great promise while on loan at Norwich, and now he had the chance to prove his worth against the world champions.

 

As Gribbin settled into the game, Swedish referee Markus Strömbergsson issued what would be the only two yellow cards he doled out all night. Belgium's Nainggolan and England's Galloway were each booked on the stroke of half-time for respective trips on Kane and Lukaku.

 

Belgium did have a chance to break the deadlock just before the interval, but Kevin De Bruyne's piledriver was pushed behind by Butland. The Manchester City playmaker had been ineffective all half, and he would be replaced for the second period by Napoli's Dennis Praet. In contrast, Catterall chose to make no changes to his team.

 

Both substitutes had chances for their respective sides shortly after the restart. Praet's 47th-minute drive for the Red Devils was brilliantly secured by Butland just before it found his left-hand post. Three minutes later, Nainggolan's tackle on England's underperforming attacking midfielder Jack Wilshere diverted the ball into the path of Gribbin, who fired wide.

 

Belgium's passing was now looking somewhat slack, and when Shelvey intercepted one particularly poor ball from Hazard in the 51st minute, England prepared to hit their visitors on the counter. Within moments, Redmond had played a lovely ball ahead of Wilshere, who couldn't strike his half-volley cleanly.

 

Courtois was eventually tested again in the 53rd minute, catching Galloway's header from a quickly-taken Henderson free-kick. The Chelsea goalkeeper was also equal to a promising attempt three minutes later from Redmond, who looked like the England attacker most likely to make something happen.

 

Once again, though, Kane was struggling to display his full array of talents. The 27-year-old England vice-captain played an excellent one-two with Wilshere on 59 minutes, only to then pull his shot wide.

 

That was to be one of Wilshere's last contributions before he was substituted in favour of Daniel Sturridge. The veteran forward would cut inside from the right flank, with fellow left-footer Gribbin shifting over to the attacking midfield slot behind Kane. Meanwhile, Belgium boss Rednic sacrificed Carrasco to give just a fourth cap to Lyon winger Zakaria Bakkali.

 

One of those 63rd-minute substitutions would go on to change the course of the match. Fortunately for England fans, that man was not Bakkali.

 

In the 71st minute, a wayward long ball from Belgium midfielder Youri Tielemans was cut out by England right-back Callum Chambers and nodded on to Sturridge. The Valencia hotshot timed his through-ball for Kane to perfection, allowing the Londoner to breeze past Dendoncker and drill the ball into Courtois' net. The Three Lions had taken a 1-0 lead in scintillating style.

 

That was Kane's 29th goal for his country. He looked set to increase his haul to 30 in the 76th minute, but his strike from Redmond's weighted pass was knocked behind off Meunier. England had already threatened to double their lead a couple of minutes earlier, but Gribbin was denied his first senior international goal by Courtois' outstretched leg.

 

After Courtois produced another save to thwart Shelvey in the 77th minute, Belgium sought to equalise from a quick-fire breakaway move, which ended with Lukaku blazing an effort well off target. Catterall then made his final personnel change, with Henderson again passing the captain's armband to Kane before he was replaced with Dier.

 

As a tireless ball-winner, Dier's main objective was simply to put pressure on the Belgian attackers and keep the Three Lions' narrow lead intact. In that sense, he proved to be the perfect substitute from Catterall.

 

Belgium struggled through the final 10 minutes as they desperately sought a leveller. Lukaku disappointed once again with a wayward finish on 82 minutes, though Benfica midfielder Tielemans had a slightly better attempt saved by Butland a couple of minutes afterwards.

 

England held on in the end, claiming a potentially significant in their bid to qualify for the Nations League Semi Finals. After two games apiece, they topped Group 2 on six points, with Belgium on three, and Austria still to get off the ground.

 

England would - at the very least - secure their Division A survival if they could get a draw against Austria at Wembley on 13 October. Another victory for Catterall's men would leave Belgium needing to win both of their matches against their group rivals in November to deny the Three Lions top spot, and qualification for the Semis.

 

9 October 2020: UEFA Nations League Division A Group 2 - at Wembley, London

England - 1 (Harry Kane 71)

Belgium - 0

ENGLAND LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Jack Butland; Calum Chambers, John Stones, Brendan Galloway, Luke Shaw; Jordan Henderson (Eric Dier), Jonjo Shelvey; Jesse Lingard (Callum Gribbin), Jack Wilshere (Daniel Sturridge), Nathan Redmond; Harry Kane. BOOKED: Galloway 45.

 

Lingard was assessed by England's medical team at the final whistle. Unfortunately, the Celta Vigo forward had suffered shin splints, meaning that he would have to leave the team and return home to Spain.

 

Another Mancunian attacker was chosen to take Lingard's place in the squad. Uncharacteristically, Catterall overlooked Marcus Rashford's recent inability to re-establish himself in Manchester United's first-team and gave the mercurial 22-year-old a recall. Rashford now had an opportunity to win his 14th England cap against Austria, and potentially add to his five international goals.

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***

 

After two straight wins, England were safely into the Elite Round of the UEFA European Under-19s Championship. Now it was up to the Young Lions to conclude the Qualifying Round in style, by defeating Lithuania at Ewood Park.

 

Even as Group 11's overwhelming underdogs, Lithuania had shown great spirit in their unsuccessful qualifying campaign. They recorded a couple of narrow 2-1 defeats to Hungary and then Turkey, but facing a team of England's calibre would test their rugged defence to the very limit.

 

As it transpired, England needed just three minutes to breach the Lithuanian backline. Watford midfielder Darren Bennett - on loan at Carlisle United - set the opening goal up with an excellent first-time ball into the danger area for Willie Field. The Liverpool wonderkid then curled in the type of beautiful finish that Sheffield Wednesday fans had become accustomed to seeing from him during his loan spell.

 

Field's strike partner Anthony Hayward missed a chance to add his name onto the scoresheet after eight minutes, when he flicked Jordan Laing's free-kick wide. That was followed a minute later by a narrow miss from Field, who looked hungry for even more goals following his opener.

 

Field got another chance to secure a brace after 15 minutes, after being tripped by Lithuania left-back Deimantas Cesnulis close to goal. Unfortunately for the Lancastrian, his set-piece was pushed wide by Marius Baranauskas. Undeterred, Field tried his luck from another free-kick moments later, coming within inches of beating the visiting goalkeeper again.

 

England had further opportunities in the 19th minute. Firstly, Bennett was unfortunate to drive a shot against the back of a Young Lions team-mate in defensive midfielder Ray Butterfield. Field got to the loose ball and stroked it forward to another midfielder in Ben Logan, whose strike was deflected behind by Cesnulis.

 

The 24th minute saw right-back Laing come within inches of scoring his first international goal. Five minutes later, though, another Young Lion did pop his goalscoring cherry, thanks to Lithuania's inability to defend a Laing corner. Field when from scorer to creator when he cut the ball back from the six-yard box to Bennett, whose calm strike put England well in control.

 

When England did increase their lead in the 35th minute, though, there was no surprise as to who would claim the plaudits. Field lashed in a lethal volley after Tommy Miles' free-kick had cleared the Lithuania wall and crashed against their crossbar.

 

England's star man got the opportunity to seal his hat-trick in the 41st minute, thanks to a somewhat controversial penalty decision. Lithuania midfielder Lukas Freidgeimas was accused of pulling back Bennett when intercepting a left-wing cross from Ted Lapslie, although Bennett himself tried to argue that no such foul had taken place. Nevertheless, the referee's original call stood, and Field comfortably beat Baranauskas to secure his third of England's four opening-half goals.

 

That wasn't to say that Field was necessarily happy with a hat-trick. In the second minute of the second half, he found the net for a FOURTH time. Field had initially set up a chance for Young Lions substitute Paul Hancock, whose strike was blocked by Lithuania wing-back Rokas Cepkauskas and then returned to sender. A powerful near-post finish followed, and it was now 5-0.

 

Field would finish on four goals, though he nearly turned his near-perfect performance into a five-star one after 52 minutes. After being shoved by Lithuania centre-back Haroldas Juska, he struck a vicious free-kick that Baranauskas did quite well to tip behind.

 

Lithuania tightened up significantly after Field's fourth, and though they never looked like scoring a consolation goal themselves, they did stem the bleeding. Baranauskas produced another fine save in the 67th minute from Miles, whose promising free-kick five minutes later was headed off target by Arsenal team-mate Nick Ward.

 

Hull City winger Hancock then had a moment to forget in the 78th minute. It looked almost certain that England's youngest player would score his third goal of the qualifiers from a right-wing delivery by Field, but he put far too much power into the volley and sent it flying over.

 

Another not-so-positive moment for England came in the penultimate minute of normal time. A left-wing cross by Lithuania's Vitalijus Gedvilas could easily have deflected into the net off Laing had it not been for the quick reactions of Josh Vokes, whose only save in this whole match was to prevent an own goal.

 

Regardless, it was still an excellent performance from the Young Lions, who finished with three wins and 11 goals. They were joined in securing Elite Round qualification from Group 11 by Turkey, who overcame Hungary by a single goal in their 2nd-place decider.

 

11 October 2020: UEFA European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Group 11 - at Ewood Park, Blackburn

Lithuania U19s - 0

England U19s - 5 (Willie Field 3,35,pen41,47, Darren Bennett 29)

ENGLAND U19s LINE-UP (4-4-2 Diamond): Josh Vokes; Jordan Laing, James Brown (Nick Ward), Stephen Nugent, Ted Lapslie; Ray Butterfield; Darren Bennett (Ashley Wells), Tommy Miles; Ben Logan; Willie Field, Anthony Hayward (Paul Hancock).

 

2021 UEFA European Under-19s Championship Qualifying Group 11 (Final Standings)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.    Q     England U19s           3     3     0     0     11    1     10    9
2.    Q     Turkey U19s            3     2     0     1     4     3     1     6
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Hungary U19s           3     1     0     2     2     6     -4    3
4.          Lithuania U19s         3     0     0     3     2     9     -7    0

 

Winning a Qualifying Round group did not necessarily guarantee an easy draw for the Elite Round. England found that out when they were paired into a nightmarish Group 6, which featured three formidable teams.

 

The defending champions would start off their Elite Round by hosting Germany - their beaten opponents in the 2020 Final in Belfast - at Ewood Park on 22 March. A couple of daunting trips then awaited them, as they would face Croatia on 26 March, and then Italy on 30 March.

 

England had reached at least the Semi Finals at the last three European Under-19s Championships. With such a difficult group, though, they would do very well merely to qualify for the 2021 finals in Greece.

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***

 

England Under-21s had one more match to play in the UEFA European Under-21s Championship qualifiers. Portugal had already beaten them to top spot in Group 8, but the Young Lions still had a good chance of progressing to the finals via the play-off route.

 

A win against lowly Georgia would be all England needed to secure their play-off place. If things went as expected in Stoke-on-Trent, they could make plans for a two-legged tie in late November against another group runner-up.

 

England reverted to their usual 4-2-3-1 formation after lining up in a diamond during their previous match against Albania. Starting on the left wing was an Under-21s debutant in Queens Park Rangers' Calum Wilson - a teenage loanee from Arsenal.

 

Also in the XI were Ryan Sessegnon and captain Trent Alexander-Arnold. The full-backs were among several Young Lions who would be suspended from the first leg of the play-offs if they were cautioned here, so they had to watch their steps.

 

England began with a bang, breaking the deadlock after a little over four minutes. Their Seagulls from Brighton & Hove Albion got off to a flyer when right-winger Jonathan Leko's cross into the six-yard box was dispatched by the lethal Lawrence Warner. Georgian goalkeeper Lasha Tandilashvili didn't have a hope in hell of keeping the on-loan Liverpool starlet out.

 

Georgia - and their full-back Besik Tsetskhladze in particular - didn't seem able to deal with crosses from their left flank. That was apparent again three minutes later, when Alexander-Arnold's delivery was half-volleyed home from near the penalty spot by Warner.

 

The Jvarosnebi immediately went on the defensive to try and stop England from running riot. In the 12th minute, though, they were fortunate not to concede a hat-trick to Warner. 'Loz' latched onto a fantastic long ball from Wolverhampton Wanderers playmaker Neil Campbell, and then dribbled at the defence before unleashing a drive towards the top corner. Tandilashvili could only push the ball away for defender Giorgi Latsabidze to clear.

 

Tandilashvili was a very nervy presence in the Georgian goal, and he would come a cropper again after 15 minutes. Following an exchange of passes with Wilson, Campbell audaciously tried to cut the ball past the goalkeeper from a tight angle. Much to the Geordie teenager's amazement, his effort squirmed beneath Tandilashvili's gloves and into the net, earning him a first career goal for England Under-21s!

 

Campbell played a significant role in creating England's next goal after 26 minutes. His attempted free-kick delivery to Wilson in the penalty area was cut out by a cynical handball from the Jvarosnebi's centre-forward Zaza Kobaladze, who left the referee with no choice but to award a penalty.

 

Only one man was stepping up to take England's spot-kick. Confident as ever, Warner smashed it past Tandilashvili to secure his third goal of the night, and his sixth in just eight caps for the Under-21s. It was no wonder that arguably the most prodigious striker to have come out of Liverpool's academy since Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen was doing cartwheels afterwards!

 

England were leading 4-0 after less than half an hour. At that rate, few punters at the Bet365 Stadium would have bet against them racking up double figures. Those who had done so would have lost money, though, as the flood of home goals suddenly stopped there.

 

Part of that sudden halt to England's goalscoring was perhaps down to Warner's laziness. The Lincolnshire-born striker coasted through the next of the match, happier to settle with three goals than his Anfield colleague Willie Field was when playing for the Under-21s the previous day.

 

More relaxed goalkeeping from Tandilashvili also played a role. The Dinamo Tbilisi custodian was much more assured in catching a drive from Wilson three minutes before half-time.

 

Tandilashvili would have rather less work to do in the second half. Georgia retreated even further back after the resumption, leaving England's attackers less space to exploit in and around their half. The Young Lions had found ways past such defensive opponents in the past, but with their job effectively already done, they didn't seem particularly bothered to do so.

 

Indeed, it was England's overconfidence that led to the Jvarosnebi threatening to snare consolation goals on the counter-attack. Kobaladze - the man whose handball had resulted in the last of the hosts' four goals - almost got his own back in the 69th minute, only to flick captain Konstantine Moniava's corner wide. Two minutes later, a long-distance strike from Moniava fizzed beyond Will Mannion's right-hand post.

 

England then became a little more rash, with a couple of players mistiming their tackles. West Bromwich Albion centre-back Adam Mingay and Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Ben Sheaf were each booked for clumsy fouls in the 82nd and 88th minutes. Neither had been yellow-carded previously in the qualification campaign, so they were still clear to take part in the first leg of the impending play-off.

 

As the home defence became more error-strewn, so did Georgia's finishing. Moniava sliced open the England backline in the 89th minute, but striker Gela Akhaladze blazed it over the crossbar. Likewise, midfielder Nika Kobakhidze was unable to keep an injury-time strike down after pouncing on a loose ball that had been lost by Sheaf.

 

Regardless of their poor second-half display, England were still satisfied with how their final group match had gone. It was never in doubt that they would progress safely into the play-offs as the best runners-up. Meanwhile, Group 8 winners Portugal - the only team to have taken any points off the Young Lions - finished undefeated after a single-goal victory in Greece.

 

12 October 2020: UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 8 - at Bet365 Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent

England U21s - 4 (Lawrence Warner 4,7,pen26, Neil Campbell 15)

Georgia U21s - 0

ENGLAND U21s LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Will Mannion; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Adam Mingay, Alistair Rattray, Ryan Sessegnon; Tom Davies (Ben Sheaf), Neil Campbell; Jonathan Leko, Chris Willock (Jadon Sancho), Calum Wilson; Lawrence Warner (Eddie Nketiah). BOOKED: Mingay 82, Sheaf 88.

 

2021 UEFA European Under-21s Championship Qualifying Group 8 (Final Standings)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.    Q     Portugal U21s          10    9     1     0     19    3     16    28
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2.    Pl    England U21s           10    8     1     1     25    7     18    25
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3.          Greece U21s            10    6     0     4     15    8     7     18
4.          Albania U21s           10    1     3     6     7     18    -11   6
5.          Georgia U21s           10    1     3     6     7     19    -12   6
6.          Macedonia U21s         10    0     2     8     4     22    -18   2

 

Accompanying England in the play-offs were Hungary, Denmark and Czech Republic - the three runners-up with the next-best records. Only two of those four would earn the last remaining tickets to the 2021 European Under-21s Championship in Italy.

 

England would be rated as heavy favourites, no matter who they got. That being said, the news that they had been drawn against the Czech Republic provoked groans in some quarters at St George's Park.

 

While the Czech senior team had sunk to 89th in the FIFA World Rankings, their youth teams were rated by many as amongst the best in Europe. After all, they had only been denied victory in the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup Final because England finally figured out how to win a penalty shoot-out. Coached by former national team goalkeeper Jaromir Blazek, the Under-21s had finished 2nd in a closely-contested Group 1, which was headed by Croatia.

 

Home advantage for the first leg went to the Czech Republic, who would kick things off in Liberec on 13 November. Just three days later, they and England would move on to the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, where it would be decided which of them qualified for Euro 2021 and which of them missed out.

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