Richard Sutcliffe: England unbeaten but failing to win over their apathetic fans

Wayne Rooney in action for England in Estonia.
Wayne Rooney in action for England in Estonia.
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FOR all manner of bizarre reasons, the recent international break was one of the more eventful in recent years.

There were shocks aplenty on the field as Holland, Spain and Germany all lost. Even more unexpectedly, all four Home Nations plus the Republic of Ireland emerged unbeaten from double-header qualifiers.

Away from the pitch and up in the sky, meanwhile, a drone sparked truly shocking scenes in Belgrade as Martin Atkinson, the Bradford-born referee, was forced to abandon the game between Serbia and Albania due to chaos born out of the recent turbulent history between the Balkan nations.

Plenty, therefore, to leave football fans across Europe open-mouthed in amazement while the focus was temporarily shifted away from the Premier League, La Liga et al for a welcome few days.

Sadly for supporters in this country, however, the impending resumption of domestic action in the top two divisions could not come soon enough after another wholly uninspiring week for the national team.

On paper, England sit atop Group E with three wins from as many games.

But, as someone who followed the national team to Estonia this week, that tells only a fraction of the story with matchdays involving the Three Lions in danger of turning into an interminable chore thanks to a combination of dull football, even duller opposition and a bloated qualifying campaign that still has a year to run before yawning to a conclusion.

Along with the 1,250 England fans allocated tickets by the FA, hundreds and hundreds more made their way to Tallinn.

Most, though, gave the distinct impression of not being overly bothered either way if they got in to see the game or not.

This much was apparent from the moment our party arrived on Saturday morning. Few of the English fans we spoke to had any interest in watching the game anywhere but a Tallinn bar.

And even those who bothered to ask if we’d had any luck yet – a clued-up taxi driver had, in fact, helped secure us tickets for a face value €27 in the home end shortly after our arrival on the ferry from Helsinki – did so in a disinterested manner, almost as if they had already decided not to go and that was that.

Things got even worse as kick-off approached the following day, with some of those fortunate enough to be allocated a ticket in the away end deciding the effort of getting to the stadium was too much so they offered them for sale.

Such apathy was in stark contrast to trips of even the recent past, with pre-match talk in places as diverse as Skopje, Sofia, Belfast and Berlin being dominated by how everyone was going to get in.

It felt such a shame, even if after sitting through the entire 90 minutes on a bitterly cold Balkan night as Wayne Rooney’s free-kick secured a laboured 1-0 win I was wondering why I’d made such an effort.

England, of course, still take numbers away the like of which other countries can only dream.

This was evident on our way home via Riga, where we decided to take in the Latvia versus Turkey qualifier.

The attendance inside the three-sided Stadionas Skonto on Monday night was 6,432, of which only around 250 seemed to be supporting the visitors. A pathetic turnout, especially with the tickets we bought outside costing a paltry €1.50.

England will never sink that low. But the signs are there that unless this apathy is nipped in the bud soon by either an overhaul of qualifying or the FA appointing a manager who wants to entertain the public, this is a situation that is only going to get worse.