England 1 Australia 0
A Friday the 13th horror show was never going to materialise at Wembley, and due to a little bit of luck the Socceroos made it to half time goalless and could even have been ahead when Ryan Strain’s low shot was deflected over the bar. This game had everything for the Australia fans apart from a goal to celebrate, and watching the seats empty towards the end in the home sections was a testament to how well the visitors played and how frustrating a night this was for the England supporters.
A quick tourist stop at Covent Garden for a lovely lunch and we were on the tube to West Hampstead to the meeting spot for pre-game at the Railway pub, right next to the station. This was logistically a stroke of genius, comfortably far enough away from Wembley to avoid the price gouging of major events, but close enough to be just a 15 minute ride away from Wembley Park. Beers flowed, Australian shirts were out in force, men’s and women’s, along with various yellow shirts, and jet lag was overcome thanks to the magical properties of alcohol.
When the time came at 6pm, the journey to the stadium was epic. The first tube that stopped at the platform was packed full, the next one just had enough space to fit a few of us in, but fit we did, and enjoyed some cajoling with the England fans as we were pressed up against them in the overcrowded carriage.
Coming out at Wembley Park, the crowds were big. The exit of the station was congested as people stopped to take photos of their first sight of the famous arch, and as we descended onto Wembley (or is it Olympic?) Way, the heavens opened and the persistent drizzle quickly turned into something we normally see in Australia, a full deluge with streams running through the streets.
The half-and-half scarf was a desired item for some of us.
“Can I have a half-and-half scarf please?”
“Sorry, we’ve sold out.”
“What about that one on the wall?”
“I can’t sell you that, it’s for display.”
“But you’ve got none to sell…”
Ultimately unsuccessful, and amused by the ten year old English fans’ banter when they saw our Australian scarves, we tramped the last 100 metres up the famous steps in monsoonal rain.
Pre-match was a little odd. Once we’d found our gate, there were airport-style security scanners and total confusion about how strict the rules were. At one point I had to empty my pockets and hold everything in my hands while walking through the scanner, which cannot be the right way to do it! The concourse was the place to be, although acquiring a drink was interesting – once you had your drink you couldn’t go into the stadium seating, so had to finish quickly. The choice of beverages was good, if you went to the right bar, otherwise it was a Qatar flashback with Budweiser being served for eye-watering prices. Qatar was cheap in comparison.
We got our flags up, despite security being a little shitty, and we made sure that the flags didn’t cover any of the words on the advertising. We’d had the flags ratified for entry, such was the tension following the English FA’s refusal to allow flags of anyone other than the competing teams, with the conflict in Israel and Palestine a hot topic. Our seats were towards the front by the corner flag, not a bad view, but this was no Commbank Stadium.
The crowd was expat-heavy and knowledge of the Socceroos and the game of football itself covered a wide spectrum, but the underlying factor of being an Australian fan brought everyone together. There was a moment’s silence, the anthems were fantastic and our section was in full voice, and the game got underway in a boistrous atmosphere.
England looked dangerous everry time Jarrod Bowen went down the right and should have scored from an early cross from Connor Gallagher, but it went through the legs of two players and the Socceroos survived. Keanu Bacchus fired in a hopeful shot that caught a deflection and was well saved by Sam Johnstone. Mitch Duke’s athletic snapshot then flew just wide as Australia grew in confidence, before a breakaway saw Ollie Watkins round Maty Ryan but his shot hit the post, and I’m not sure whether Cam Burgess would have done enough if it was on target.
The best chance of the half came at the end, Martin Boyle scurrying away, holding up the play to feed Ryan Strain, and he did everything right, shooting low when given space and time, but Lewis Dunk deflected the ball over and England survived.
Half-time and the concourse was again busy, the queues for the women’s toilets as fierce as the queue for a beer. The lack of time to drink it though just doesn’t work – it takes so long to get one and then you have to chug it to make the kick off of the second half. There was no way I was waiting! Plus there’s no indication oif the start of the second half, so you could find yourselfin conversation and missing the kick off.
All credit to the mobile phone company EE who lit the stadium up in green and gold, although I’m sure that was unintentional. Harry Souttar managed to shank a cross behind early in the second half, which we applauded furiously as if it was off the line. England did strike though soon after, following another towering Souttar clearance. The ball was lifted back in and it fell for Jack Grealish at the far post and his low shot was helped over the line by Ollie Watkins, who is credited as the goalscorer. Burgess might look back and think he could have done something to prevent the ball getting through though, but that’s a moot point.
Kieran Trippier was sent on to deal with Craig Goodwin, who was finding space, but once Goodwin was taken off, that option disappeared. Mo Toure came on late and looked lively as the Socceroos threatened down the right, and they had a good chance from a corner that Connor Metcalfe met perfectly with his head and the Aussie fans ooohed as the ball went past the post. What a goal that would have been. The referee was consistently soft – awarding fouls for the slightest touch, which irked the fans of both teams – but in truth the consistency was appreciated, so well done.
Ten minutes before the end, the number of empty red seats on the far side was noticeable. This was like the opening game of the Qatar world cup, where the locals poured out of the stadium before the end, confirming that this Wembley occasion was not for the football purists, but purely a night out to get the Instagram shots.
The end of the game was a little anticlimactic. There was only minor interaction between players and fans, Maty Ryan giving his gloves to a young fan (turns out it might not have been the intended fan), while I headed up to grab the flags. Alas, the yellow boxing kangaroo flag, lovingly painted only hours before with the deft hand of a skilled artist, had been pilfered. I sincerely hope the paint rubbed off on what you were wearing, you thieving twat. The stadium emptied very quickly, the subs all appeared to go through the motions with a warmdown, but remained far away from the mostly empty away section.
Having dallied in the stadium until most people had gone, the sight of Wembley Way heaving with people in the distance on the approach to Wembley Park station was not tempting, and a group of us Aussie fans headed to a local bar for some horribly priced refreshment until the crowds died down. That was a good choice, and we had a seamless run on the Underground to our destination in West London, which at the moment is a rarity.
So England away at Wembley, an occasion that may not happen again in my lifetime, and what an occasion it was. The thumping rain as we approached the stadium made this a special experience, one that would be very different from those fans who arrive only 15 minutes beforehand. The Socceroos did us proud, the football was great at times as we passed the ball out of trouble and looked to break quickly, and had Mitch Duke’s shot gone in we would have been talking about a famous goal on a famous night for a long long time.
London is a football lover’s paradise, and we have a few days to enjoy more action before the next game at Brentford on Tuesday. A repeat of the performance at Eden Park last year would be smashing, thank you.