The ball came spinning in. John Terry towered above them all to thump a header back across the goalkeeper and into the top corner. It was England who had scored the historic first under the arch in their new Wembley Stadium debut. Brazil stood unmoved, stunned. In the dying moments of a match England ought to have held onto, Diego equalised with a precise header of his own. Steve McClaren’s side had to settle for a draw, but the hopes were that this would set a precedent of England holding their own against the world’s best on their own brand-new home turf. In the 14 years since, have they managed that?
England are of course no strangers to Wembley success. The old Wembley Stadium — with its twin towers and traditional bowl shape — had seen some famous old days. Euro 96 springs to mind, but not before memories of England’s Greatest Day. The day. 55 years since have been spent trying to replicate that solitary golden moment. Would a new stadium help?Embed from Getty Images
To meticulously assess England’s record at the new Wembley helps to tease out few clear conclusions. They have faced elite nations (former World Cup winners plus Holland, Portugal, Croatia and Belgium) just 20 times in those 14 years. England’s record makes for rather indifferent reading. Eight wins, five draws and seven defeats is decent enough, but tells little about whether Wembley has become a fortress. And those 20 matches are not to mention a couple of humiliating defeats to less established footballing nations — to Chile and Denmark.
Perhaps owing to its sheer size, Wembley has been tainted with the reputation of being decidedly corporate, artificial and lacking atmosphere. But that seems more attributable to the nature of matches England have played there. Tests against the big-hitters are hugely outnumbered by qualifiers in which the Three Lions line-up against Bulgaria, Estonia and the like. San Marino have visited a few times too.
England’s record in these qualifying matches is extremely impressive. Discounting the Nations League which is a separate competition in its own right, England have lost a grand total of one qualifier at the new Wembley — that hopeless night in 2007 when Wembley was young, the pitch was a bog, and the umbrella was out. Whoever the opposition in those games, that’s pretty good going. It is from this — and results like the Euro 2016 Iceland defeat or the drab afternoon draw with Costa Rica in Brazil — that England’s modern reputation has evolved. England: a team who qualify almost perfectly, before choking once the whole world starts watching them.Embed from Getty Images
Gareth Southgate said after England’s last-gasp victory over Croatia in November 2018 to seal a Nations League Finals place that: “The most pleasing thing of all is the connection with the fans, because I’ve not heard Wembley like that for years.” And is it any wonder? England were effectively playing a winner-takes-all tie with the side that had dumped them out of only their third-ever World Cup semi-final appearance. The winner’s prize: a chance to compete at the inaugural finals tournament of the Nations League. That is the sort of drama and almost universal interest that simply isn’t there when England face Lithuania in a European Championships qualifier on a Tuesday night. They might both be Wembley fixtures for England, but they’re very different spectacles.
All of this makes it very hard to assess how good England have been since moving into their world-famous new home 14 years ago. That revengeful Croatia win in 2018 was one of the first times since they moved in that England have faced a major nation at home in a match that wasn’t merely an international friendly. This summer brings England a string of competitive Wembley tournament tests like never before. Euro 2020 marks the grandest moment for the historic ground since its ribbons were cut back in 2007.
We still can’t tell whether Wembley has become England’s fortress yet. But over the next four weeks, we might just get a better idea.