JUST three of the 113 previous instalments of football’s oldest rivalry have been played in June, one of which came at Euro 96 as Gazza scored ‘that’ goal.
England have met France, meanwhile, 30 times down the years. Four of those have come in June, three in the group stage of major tournaments and the other as part of Le Tournoi that served as the warm-up to the 1998 World Cup.
Two more meetings with Scotland and the French in a month normally set aside for the close season are scheduled for the next four days and this surely begs the question: ‘Why, in a year with no major finals taking place, are England’s footballers not yet on the beach?’
Burnout, fatigue, exhaustion – you name it, this is a time of year when the effects of a long and draining season leave even the youngest of legs feeling heavy. Rest and relaxation should be the order of the day, not back-to-back away games against rivals determined to get one over the English.
FIFA are, of course, behind the scheduling of today’s qualifier – though why one of the dates set aside for friendlies earlier in the season could not have been used instead is a question only the governing body can answer.
But there is no such excuse for Tuesday’s trip to Paris for a friendly that will tell us little other than how jaded footballers can look at this time of year. Putting such a strain on already tired bodies is crazy and one that will have ramifications further down the line.
Still, it is what it is and Gareth Southgate’s side have a job to do. Another three points to go with the 13 already garnered from five qualifying games should leave England with one foot planted on Russian soil ahead of next year’s World Cup.
The decibel levels at Hampden Park will be cranked up. This, let us not forget, remains one of football’s keenest rivalries. Maybe not quite on a par with the days when Don Revie once had to halt an ‘England v Scotland’ five-a-side game in training for fear one of his Leeds United players would be seriously injured. But getting one over the noisy neighbours still matters, hence why the atmosphere will be lively – at least before kick-off as the Tartan Army look to inspire their side to a first victory over the Auld Enemy since 1999. They might just get it, too, as these are two distinctly average teams when compared to their predecessors.
Last November’s meeting at Wembley was ample proof of that, the fare being more Championship than Champions League.
The result was a chastening one for the Scots. Not since 1975 had the Auld Enemy inflicted a bigger margin of defeat than the 3-0 triumph that effectively got Southgate the job on a permanent basis after a spell in interim charge.
This, let us not forget, remains one of football’s keenest rivalries. Maybe not quite on a par with the days when Don Revie once had to halt an ‘England v Scotland’ five-a-side game in training for fear one of his Leeds United players would be seriously injured. But getting one over the noisy neighbours still matters.Richard Sutcliffe
It could, though, have been very different had the visitors taken even one of three gilt-edged opportunities when trailing to just Daniel Sturridge’s opener. Grant Hanley, Leigh Griffiths and James Forrest were all culpable in squandering chances to peg back their hosts and such profligacy was, ultimately, punished in the second half by goals from Adam Lallana and Gary Cahill.
This evening’s return is likely to be similar, all industry rather than artistry, and a game that, if those recent meetings are anything to go by, is unlikely to live long in the memory.
Certainly, it is hard to imagine iconic moments of the past being repeated – be it Bobby Lennox’s daisycutter at Wembley in 1967 as Scotland beat the world champions, Bobby Charlton’s trademark bullet the previous year in Glasgow or Colin Hendry being left sprawled on the turf by Gazza in his pomp.
Gareth Southgate seems to be expecting a battle, if his decision to take his players away last weekend for what was akin to a ‘Boot Camp’ with the Royal Marines is anything to go by.
While in Devon at the Marines’ commando training centre, the England squad had their mobile phones confiscated, slept in full camouflage gear and undertook a number of drills. These included a four-mile hike with 21 kg on their backs.
The intention, the Three Lions chief made clear this week, was to take the players out of their comfort zone. Images of Southgate and his players having their heads dunked in ice-cool pools of water by the Marines suggested such a target was met.
What is perhaps more pressing from an England perspective, though, is the test of endurance that his players are being put through by such a packed schedule of matches. Harry Kane embodies this perhaps better than anyone else, his performances in the Premier League – he has now scored 20-plus goals in three consecutive seasons – being totally at odds with the struggles he endured at Euro 2016, his only appearance at a major finals.
Fatigue was put forward as factor behind those ponderous performances in France, the shock second round defeat to Iceland having been Kane’s 64th appearance of a season that had begun on England Under-21s duty at the European Championships the previous summer. That embarrassment against Iceland was also his 120th game in two years.
With such a draining schedule for not just Kane but also many of his team-mates who have to cope with the rigours of a campaign in the ultra competitive Premier League on a weekly basis, is it any wonder the Three Lions have barely been capable of a whimper, never mind a roar, at major tournaments over the past decade? Expect more of the same in Russia a year from now.