BRAMALL LANE will forever hold a revered place in the history of the England Under-21s football team.
It hosted arguably the country’s finest hour at this particular age-group level in May 1984 when goals from Mark Hateley and Howard Gayle saw them beat Spain 2-0 in the second leg of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship final to clinch a 3-0 aggregate success against a team containing the likes of Andoni Zubizarreta, Emilio Butragueno and Michel.
Back in April 1977, S2 was also the venue at which the late, great Laurie Cunningham became the first black player to represent England, scoring the winning goal in the Under-21s’ 1-0 win over Scotland.
The Auld Enemy were also the opposition on the previous occasion that England Under-21s called in at the Lane in August 2013 when the hosts handsomely prevailed 6-0 in a ‘friendly’, with the one-sided action lapped up by the overwhelming majority of the 26,942 crowd.
Last night’s margin of victory was by no means as emphatic, but appetites were sated among Unitedites following a historic goal from ‘one of their own’ in Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
The Sheffielder, watched by his proud parents Karlda and Rachel, achieved a boyhood dream in the process by putting his side ahead in front of the Shoreham Street End four minutes before the interval, something he never managed to do in his time with the Blades before his £1.5m move to Everton in August 2016.
It was ultimately a rewarding night for one half of Sheffield and also for both footballing halves of Merseyside with an 88th-minute winner from substitute Dominic Solanke, six minutes after fellow replacement Mykola Shaparenko grabbed a shock leveller for Ukraine, adding to Calvert-Lewin’s earlier strike and seeing England home in front of 22,601 fans in the nick of time.
It had looked like England’s remarkable sequence of successive home wins would grind to a halt at a 30th home game, with the hot streak stretching back to March 2010 when the Young Lions lost 2-1 to Greece just up the road at Doncaster Rovers’ Keepmoat Stadium.
But Solanke’s late downward header from Ben Chilwell’s left-wing centre saved the day with leaders England remaining in firm command of Group Four of the 2019 European U21 Championship qualifiers with a wholesome 16 points from six unbeaten games.
It provided another endearing Lane memory for England and for Calvert-Lewin there was the belated coming-of-age gift to treasure – the striker turned 21 earlier this month.
The goal was a picture-book one too and owed much to a wonderful defence splitting pass from Norwich City’s James Maddison, who displayed glimpses of class to suggest that he will surely be swapping Carrow Road for a Premier League destination this summer.
Calvert-Lewin latched onto it in a flash and nipped in front of onrushing Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Lunin before poking the ball into the empty net.
The strike helped atone for a wasteful moment earlier on in the half when Calvert-Lewin fired over with plenty of the goal to aim at after a fine whipped free-kick from Maddison, but the axis came good before the break.
Ukraine, who showed moments of threat on the break, took the sting out of England for large parts although they were fortunate not to concede in the 20th minute when Pavlo Lukyanchuk almost turned captain Demarai Gray’s cross into his own net.
At the other end alert goalline defending from Middlesbrough’s Dael Fry prevented Volodymr Stepeliev from levelling after Josh Onomah was guilty of overplaying at the back.
The scares for the hosts were fairly infrequent, but concerning nevertheless.
England, who made little major headway in their quest to find a second goal for large spells of the second half, had another moment of apprehension midway through the second period when a brilliant clearance from Everton defender Jonjoe Kenny kept the hosts’ lead intact as he somehow diverted Maksym Lunov’s drive away from goal.
But Ukraine persisted and found a way through when the unmarked Shaparenko turned in a fine left-wing cross from another replacement in Maxym Tretyakov.
But Solanke, who missed the friendly win over Romania with an infected toe, had the final say to maintain England’s five-point lead in their group, with four games to play.
Qualification is surely a case of when, not if. Not for the first time.
England Under-21s: Gunn; Kenny, Fry, Worrall, Chilwell; Onomah, Davies; Gray (Lookman 73), Maddison (Solanke 76), Sessegnon; Calvert-Lewin (Maitland-Niles 90). Unused substitutes: Woodman, Abraham, Clarke-Salter, Walker-Peters.
Ukraine Under-21s: Lunin; Luchkevych, Zotko, Lukyanchuk, Kravets; Vakulko (Shaparenko 62), Pikhalonok, Shepeliev, Lunov (Tretyakov 79); Kovalenko, Dovbyk (Zubkov 73). Unused substitutes: Makhankov, Tymchyk, Tsymbaliuk, Shved.
Referee: MK Kristoffersen (Denmark).