Despite the nation’s relative mediocrity when it comes to tournament success, certainly when it comes to other perceived ‘big’ European teams such as Germany, Italy, France and Spain, England have generally been in receipt of a reliable marksman who the rest of Europe would take in their respective sides at the drop of a hat.
A Geoff Hurst, Kevin Keegan, Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Harry Kane or a Michael Owen with the last making sure that an uncomfortable evening on England’s only previous visit to the Riverside Stadium for a senior international had the desired outcome by way of result.
That was on June 11, 2003 when Euro 2004 points were on the line against Slovakia – and a couple of decisive moments on an historic night for Owen, then still in the club colours of Liverpool, maintained England’s hopes of automatic qualification in a 2-1 victory at Middlesbrough in front of a crowd of 33,106.
A much smaller number will be present at England’s forthcoming pre European Championship finals friendlies against Austria and Romania, with the Riverside capacity capped at 25 per cent for both games due to Covid-19 restrictions.
A few similarly timely goal-scoring contributions from England’s striking talisman and undoubted captain and leader in Kane would go down just as well as stand-in captain Owen’s salvo did with the Teesside public, with the first game with the Austrians taking place on Wednesday evening.
On his latest visit to a place he knows so well, England manager Gareth Southgate will have a watching brief in the home dug-out – in the national team’s previous visit, he was in the heart of a home defence which also included a future Boro team-mate in Leeds United’s Danny Mills.
Mills was actually sacrificed just before half-time following a tough first half which saw England trail 1-0 after a free-kick from Vladimir Janocko evaded David James.
The Slovakians, whose line-up included a Boro striker in Szilard Nemeth, missed chances to increase their lead before England switched from a 4-1-3-2 system to a conventional 4-4-2, with Phil Neville deployed at right-back, Steven Gerrard moving inside and substitute Owen Hargreaves slotting in on the right-hand side of midfield.
It had the desired effect with Owen’s brace, including a penalty leveller after he was fouled by Marian Zeman, restoring order.
Sven-Goran Eriksson was left to profess his relief at the presence of Owen, who marked his 50th cap for his country – at the age of just 23 – in fitting fashion.
The Three Lions, as is often their wont, did things the hard way and the contribution of a young player still making his way on the international stage in a 17-year-old Wayne Rooney was the subject of much discourse afterwards.
It was the withdrawal of Rooney and the addition of the raw pace of Darius Vassell which also provided a catalyst for the hosts. Rooney’s time would come later.
At the end of events on Teesside, the talk about the importance of Owen – who followed his spot-kick just after the hour with a clinical header from a perfect cross from the impressive Gerrard to settle the issue 17 minutes from time – was unequivocal.
Eriksson commented: “I never take Michael Owen for granted. When you have him, you will always score goals.
“You don’t appreciate Michael Owen, you are very spoiled to have him in this country. I am happy for Michael.
“It was a good way to show how to be captain and a good way to celebrate his 50th cap. Once again he showed in the important games that he’s very gifted.”
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