Actually, before reading the report of the Scotland captain’s pre-match press conference, I sensed it from the accompanying photo. Broonie, stomping across the lush FA shagpile in his shellsuit and trainers, looked hard. He looked like he meant business. Nothing in his body language suggested he’d come all the way down to London for a “friendly”.
We saw the look again just before kick-off. I was watching on the main ITV channel catering for the English audience and the commentator, Clive Tyldesley, made a reference to Roy Keane and his famous tunnel psycho-deadeye-stare, as if Broonie had copied it. I’m guessing Tydlesley couldn’t name two Killie players either, because he didn’t seem to know that it is Broonie’s normal look, even when he wins a game, even on Christmas Day when he is given a new shellsuit and trainers.
England didn’t know what was coming and some of us Scots had forgotten. There were Wembley regulars who’d never heard God Save the Queen booed before. There were Wembley regulars who’d never heard the opposition fans make such an unholy racket before – not from start to finish, not in a meaningful match and certainly not in one like this with supposedly nothing at stake. And there were Wembley regulars who’d never seen tackling in a friendly before. Real, tough, committed tackling which had the club managers wincing about injuries ahead of the Premier League’s opening weekend.
What a game! What an occasion! The players fed off the crowd, the crowd fed off the players. Wayne Rooney hit a pass to absolutely no one, the Tartan Army jeered, and the player’s neck turned pink with embarrassment and mild rage. This will have happened to him playing away for Man U but never for England in a Wembley friendly. And what was he still doing out there, he maybe asked, remembering those friendlies when Sven-Goran Eriksson sent out an entire new team for the second half, killing the contest stone dead?
Instinctively on Wednesday, some England fans might have asked themselves after an hour: “Should we go soon, beat the rush for the Tube? You know how these games always fizzle out.” But, after an hour and beyond, no one on the pitch was mimsying around, avoiding contact, going through the motions. So the England fans stayed, sang God Save the Queen, which was boo-ed again, boo-ed back during Flower of Scotland, drank in the atmosphere some more and wondered: “Why can’t all international football be like this?”
Well, it used to be. That is, when one team took the lead they didn’t then try and hang on grimly, never crossing the halfway line again. This is what a lot of international football is like now, but Scotland didn’t sit in at 1-0 or 2-1. The crowd appreciated this and you could say the England attack ultimately benefited from this, but our rediscovered confidence and brightness under Gordon Strachan were there for all to see, and might just have brought their reward.
Sadly these days, we all approach international football with heavy hearts. World Cups and European Championships are still hyped as the greatest shows on earth but the finals come at the end of long seasons when the global superstars might have played 60-odd games already.
Tight, mean matches, and some meaningless ones, in tournaments that have been allowed to grow too big, often result.
The resumption of the world’s oldest international benefited from being played in August. Maybe Wednesday’s encounter wouldn’t have been quite as thrilling if it had been May. It also benefited from having a German referee who agreed to impersonate a British whistler, one from about 15 years ago, and let a lot of the tackles go. Presumably this was agreed beforehand. Maybe the Scots slipped a note under the official’s door: “We’d like to be allowed to niggle Theo Walcott. Because he’s called Theo.”
Why can’t all international football be like this? Well, it can’t. Only one game is this special. Football, in all its blundering, semolina-brained stupidity, can take away identity, team colours, a stadium’s name. It can Americanise what a club’s been called for more than a hundred years and take away supporters’ souls. But it cannot take away our Scotland v England.