A MEASURE of how international football often fails to catch the nation’s imagination outside major tournaments comes via tomorrow’s visit of Lithuania to Wembley.
England have hosted the Baltic country once before, almost exactly two years ago in a European Championship qualifier.
Can you honestly remember anything at all about the fixture? I certainly can’t, and I was there.The YP’s chief football writer, Richard Sutcliffe, struggling to recall the last Wembley meeting between England and Lithuania.
It finished 4-0 to the hosts but, dear reader, can you honestly remember anything at all about the fixture? I certainly can’t, and I was there.
For the record, Harry Kane made his debut as a second-half substitute and marked the occasion with a goal by heading in a Raheem Sterling cross just 80 seconds – and two touches – after being brought off the bench.
Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Sterling also got their names on the scoresheet as Roy Hodgson’s men made it seven victories in as many outings since the start of that season. Finally, the attendance was, in a major triumph for the Football Association’s marketing team, 83,761.
I only know all this after digging out my match report that appeared in The Yorkshire Post the following day. And, while these gaps in the memory may well be a sign that this particular correspondent’s powers are waning as the years whizz by, an inability to recall even tiny details about that night’s visit to Wembley says a lot about the state of international football right now.
There are simply too many games outside the major finals that are competitive in name only, too many games that pass by without making even the slightest of impressions on the national psyche.
Even those directly involved on the field must find it hard to differentiate between, say, that 2015 win over Lithuania and the 3-0 victory over Slovenia at Wembley six months earlier. Or the 2-0 home wins over Estonia and Switzerland in Euro 2016 qualifiers that followed for the Three Lions later in the year.
It is a sad state of affairs for those of us who recall when an England international, friendly or otherwise, was a major event in the sporting calendar.
In the same way that the merest mention today of ‘Dundee United’ or ‘Aberdeen’ serves as a throwback to youthful Wednesday nights spent watching the Scottish duo do battle with the European elite on BBC’s Sportsnight or Midweek Sports Special over on ITV, casting the mind back to a similar time when international fixtures were something to savour merely reminds us of how staid things have become.
Nowadays, many football fans see an international break as an inconvenience, an unwanted distraction from the domestic game. This is particularly evident at this time of year, when the run-in is upon us and the tension building with each passing week.
Players could be forgiven for feeling the same, with tomorrow’s Wembley assignment surely the least important fixture that most of those on duty for England will have played this month.
Put it this way, can three qualifying points against Lithuania really compare to the night Jamie Vardy and Leicester City made history by reaching the last eight of the Champions League? Or the scramble for a top four place in the Premier League that is currently occupying the minds of Sterling, Eric Dier, Adam Lallana et al?
International football outside the major tournaments is falling behind and UEFA’s planned Nations League, whereby countries of equivalent strength will face each other on a regular basis, is not going to help as the upshot will simply be previously stellar fixtures such as England taking on Germany becoming the norm. We are already approaching saturation point on that score, England’s defeat in Dortmund having been the sixth meeting between the two countries in 10 years.
Still, it is what it is. And, with those whose clubs do not reside in Leagues One and Two having a blank weekend, the visit of Lithuania does, at least, offer an opportunity to watch 90 minutes of football.
Those tuning in will, no doubt, be ‘treated’ to something of a walkover. But there will still be points of interest in Gareth Southgate’s first competitive game as permanent manager.
Chief among those will be whether he sticks with the 3-4-3 formation that showed so much promise in Germany.
Will Ben Gibson, called up yesterday following injury to Chris Smalling, get the opportunity his form with Middlesbrough deserves? And, in the absence of Harry Kane, who of Marcus Rashford or Jamie Vardy will be most effective in opening up a visitors’ defence that is likely to sit very deep?
Plenty to ponder, even if most of the answers will be forgotten once the Premier League kicks back into life next week.