The coronavirus pandemic was merely a whisper from the East at the beginning of the year. By the end of 2020 though, it’s managed to turn almost every aspect of life as we know it completely on its head. If club football has just about kept its wheels turning, international football cuts a neglected figure — abandoned in a ditch a few miles back.
National teams have quietly taken their place in the backseat throughout the year, bending around the louder, lucrative domestic game. But international football has continued in some form. For the men’s senior team, this was a year of frustration on the pitch and frustration off it. Meanwhile, the women could be forgiven for feeling that they’ve barely reached the pitch. 2020 has been disrupted beyond repair, but have the England teams made anything like the best of it?
A year that was supposed to start with notable friendlies in preparation for a summer Euros largely on home soil instead didn’t see anything whatsoever until September. The entire team, and every other team, in the ‘international wilderness’. Friendlies were scrapped; the Euros were pushed back a year. It’s sobering to think that we still don’t know whether we’ll have packed stadiums or not when Euro 2020 finally gets underway… in 2021.Embed from Getty Images
“There is benefit to working with the system and improving it.” That’s what Gareth Southgate told EnglandFootball.org after the September and October internationals. A move to 3-4-3 was unpopular, and results have largely backed-up those wanting the 4-3-3 formation retained. While victories over Iceland, Wales and the world’s top-ranked side Belgium provided moderate optimism around Southgate’s side, the performances in these first two breaks of the year were enough to dump fans right back down to earth.
England were due to start the November fortnight against New Zealand, but that would have been unnecessary travel and then some. The Republic of Ireland were the replacement opposition for the first of three improved displays. The Three Lions were especially assured in their final game of the year — a 4-0 Wembley drubbing of Iceland. Jack Grealish shone in all of England’s last three matches, particularly in Leuven where a spirited side lost to the Belgians. A 2-0 defeat was frustrating, but England had outplayed their hosts.
The reality of the situation is that England not only failed to reach the Nations League finals but were the only major European team to finish third in their group. Taking one solitary point from the double-header with Denmark is largely responsible for that unwanted feat. Yet positives can be taken from Grealish’s emergence on the scene, and from the fact he was one of 12 full debutants. A dozen full debuts in just three months and eight games of football is quite a story. Three of them scored, too. Southgate’s faith in young players paying dividends.
Youth can bring naivety with it, though. Some of England’s players got themselves caught up in cases of ill discipline. There were parties that didn’t comply with government guidelines and there were broken lockdown rules, as well as the infamous Iceland incident and Mykonos mix-up. Three red cards in their first five games were further examples of carelessness, albeit on the pitch. This undermined the manager’s trust in picking them in the first place.
Understandably given results and performances, Southgate personally received new levels of vitriol from fans. Was this a ‘good’ year for Southgate and his players? By their own high standards, it probably wasn’t.
The men playing eight times when it should have been upwards of 13 is put into context when assessing the Lionesses’ year. They had a taxing 20 matches in 2019 — many of them on their run to the World Cup semi-finals in France. In 2020? Just three.Embed from Getty Images
Phil Neville’s side kickstarted the year at the annual SheBelieves Cup in the United States. England first took part in this four-team competition in 2016. They’d finished third (twice) and then second in their first three visits. Then 2019 saw them pip the hosts to an unlikely win.
However, the prolonged hangover that England suffered after their memorable run last summer was evidently not yet cured. Two goals in two minutes killed their chances of getting anything from their opener against the United States in Florida. A scrappy performance in the next game against Japan didn’t feel like the perfect response, but Ellen White’s late winner ensured it was. Hopes of a top-two finish were dashed three days on though, with an unlikely defeat to Spain in Texas. Another third-place finish; the Lionesses would have to improve.
It transpired that they didn’t even get the chance.
First, manager Neville said he would not be staying on past July 2021 when his contract expires. He now won’t be in charge for the postponed European Championships right here in England, originally scheduled for 2021 but postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. August saw his successor named — the Netherlands’ Euro 2017-winning coach Sarina Wiegmann. She will take charge from September 2021.Embed from Getty Images
With hosts England not required to qualify for the Euro 2022 finals, Neville and Wiegmann have two years’ worth of friendlies to oversee. But the two scheduled clashes for the autumn — against Germany in October and Norway in November — were both cancelled due to COVID-19 cases and travel restrictions.
Can we really assess where England’s women are at in 2020, then? It would seem mightily unfair. They’ve played just three times and haven’t taken to the pitch since March.
The COVID-19 football calendar put the international game well below domestic football in the list of priorities. Similarly, youth football was fighting a losing battle to the senior game. Most England youth teams — both men’s and women’s — played either a handful of St George’s Park friendlies or didn’t have any fixtures at all. The three sides that bucked that trend were the women’s U19s and men’s U17s and U21s.Embed from Getty Images
2020 was a short calendar year for the men’s U17s, but they at least embarked on a February tour of Marbella. It’s alright for some. With former England C and Seychelles international Kevin Betsy in charge, England earned two handsome victories and one goalless draw in games against Ukraine (two) and Russia. They were all set to play Euro qualifiers a month later. That never happened.
Aidy Boothroyd’s men’s U21s were effectively the only one of England’s ten youth sides to enjoy anything remotely like a ‘normal’ year. Across six Euro qualifiers between September and November, England put 21 goals past Turkey, Austria, Kosovo, Albania and Andorra on the way to reaching the finals and topping the group, ten points clear of the Austrians. The finals in Hungary and Slovenia take place in March 2021.Embed from Getty Images
Like the men’s U17s, the women’s U19s also found themselves in Spain, participating in the annual La Manga tournament in March. However, theirs weren’t performances to write home about. Then-manager Rehanne Skinner’s side lost all three games in Murcia, falling to the United States, Sweden and Denmark in a trip to forget.
Overall, has this been a good year for England?
No, not really. But who has it been a good year for? Close your eyes, erase your memory, move on.