But there are three Englands, really – tournament England, where Gareth Southgate makes them pragmatic and successful, friendly England, where both teams are inevitably watered down by pullouts, and qualifying England, where they are masters of all they purvey.
The visit of Andorra is a World Cup qualifier, although the number of changes to the home side could see it verge into friendly territory. The last time the Three Lions were at Wembley for a qualifier, against Montenegro in November 2019, they won 7-0, five of the goals coming before England more or less declared at half-time. Even if all Thursday’s starters are on the bench or in the stands, more of the same will be expected against a team drawn from a principality 468 square km in size.
To quote the 1966 commentary sampled on World In Motion: we want goals.
With three games to play in seven days, there is every chance Leeds United’s Patrick Bamford will make his international debut hoping to emulate David Nugent, who scored an injury-time debut goal against Andorra, snatching it off Jermain Defoe. Not that Bamford will want to match the future Middlesbrough player in other ways – it was his last cap.
The point is, there are goals to be had. England’s aggregate score in their four matches against Andorra is 16-0. They are 13-1 from four 2022 World Cup qualifiers. England have become so good at qualifying that frankly a lot of the games have become a powerful advert for the likes of Andorra and San Marino, who host England in November, to be weeded out in a first stage of qualification where they would be more than just cannon fodder. These are games top players’ bodies and minds could do without.
But at least England tend to make good use of their superiority to put on a show, albeit a somewhat unsatisfying one because it is more exhibition than contest. Where they can be stodgy and cagey in tournaments, they play with more freedom in qualifying. They sometimes take time wearing teams down – 55 minutes before the floodgates opened in Budapest on Thursday – but lay on the goals when they do.
If it is a bit of a B team Southgate selects, Bamford – constantly told what he cannot before regularly showing he can – will not be the only player with a point to prove, albeit he will be the only debutant.
Such is the competition for places in this high-quality England squad, anyone who gets a chance cannot afford to waste it.
Overlooked again in Hungary, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold will want to win over a manager who seems lukewarm to him. If Southgate wants to be bold, he could even try him in central midfield and bypass the “problem” of so many talented right-backs.
Bukayo Saka will want to move on from the last kick England had at Wembley, and if Jadon Sancho is fit he will also have a penalty shoot-out miss to move on from. Tyrone Mings can remind everyone how good he was at Euro 2020 until Harry Maguire got fit, Jesse Lingard needs to take every chance he gets to show he can play. There could be a rare outing for Nick Pope, and more experience for Jude Bellingham. Win as they really, really, should, and England will be at least five points clear at the top of their group with five matches to play. It would be hard, but not impossible, to mess up qualifying for Qatar from there.
Before we English saddle up our high horses about the shameful behaviour of Hungary’s fans in Budapest, we need to remember the Wembley fans are on trial too tomorrow. In his unofficial role as the conscience and commonsense of this country, Southgate was very clear before and after what went on at the Puskas Stadium that England must get its own house in order first. The last time we held a party there, thousands of people turned up and trashed it.
The last time England supporters – some with tickets, more without – gathered in London for a football match, far too many were a complete national embarrassment, a too-often criminal mob fuelled on over-excitement, alcohol and drugs, but unfortunately not brainpower. Hungary’s ground might not be the only one getting closed down if we see even a fraction of that idiocy again, and if they are not dead already, England’s hopes of hosting a major tournament any time soon are on life support.
Sporadic booing of players taking the knee has been a common feature before games across the country – including, sadly, in Yorkshire – this season. At Hull City v Derby County this month, neither team took the knee, just stood to protest against discrimination. They still got booed.
When you have waited as long to play for your country as Bamford has – he made his professional debut in the same year (2011) as Harry Kane – it will be a big deal if he makes it onto football’s most famous pitch. Unlike last season’s games, the stands will not be empty because there will still be people who want to support and be entertained by a very likeable group of players.
So even though the game will more than likely be a duck shoot, and even though we almost certainly know the outcome now, tonight will not be completely meaningless.