by Dom Smith — at the John Smith’s Stadium
Huddersfield fans can’t be blamed for still hurting about their side’s playoff final defeat at the hands of Nottingham Forest. It was tight, tense, they felt they should have had two penalties, and it was their chance to be back in the dizzying heights of the Premier League. And so they also can’t be blamed for booing Forest’s Djed Spence when his name was called out before kick-off.
However, those petty boos continued into the match and perhaps contributed to Spence’s lowest moment on a football pitch for quite some time. The Championship team of the season inclusion has been courted by almost the full set of European superpowers this summer. Bayern Munich love the look of him. But the dynamic right-back glanced a header into his own net just 57 seconds into this final 2023 U21 Euros qualifier, helping Luka Vešner Tičić’s wicked clipped delivery into the net.
There hadn’t been a great deal of excitement from the 5,000 spectators inside the John Smith’s Stadium to this point anyway. But you can bet your life any murmurs were quashed and silenced when Spence gave the visitors a shock lead here.Embed from Getty Images
England were 2–0 up after 14 minutes and looked set for a commanding victory when these two met in Celje in October, before Slovenia rallied and stole a point. That result was far from a sign of things to come. Before tonight it was the only qualifier of nine that Lee Carsley’s Young Lions failed to win. They sealed qualification for next year’s Euros in Bulgaria and Georgia last week with a 3–0 win over Albania.
But after following that up with an emphatic 5–0 win over Kosovo, they were unable to end the campaign in the way they’d have liked. Slovenia were too well organised, won too many second balls, and were not ponderous in attack — unlike laboured England.
Emile Smith Rowe and Jacob Ramsey might have first-hand experience of changing games in the Premier League, but this encounter was decided by the quality of Vešner Tičić’s freekicks. His cultured inswinger from the left forced Spence into the error for the opener. And midway through the second half, when England had bought on three fresh pairs of legs and with the night drawing in, the FC Koper midfielder swung in a stellar free-kick from deeper on the right wing. Mark Zabukovnik clambered above the England defence to power a bullet header into the net. England keeper Josef Bursik could only stand and watch — and Slovenia were now loving their trip to South Yorkshire that bit more.Embed from Getty Images
Carsley told EnglandFootball.org after the match: “They’ve scored a lot of goals from set plays, so we made the players aware of that. We went through set plays yesterday.” The evidence suggested they should have spent a lot longer on them.
The tempo around the back wasn’t as fast as we’d like. We just weren’t good enough tonight”, admitted midfielder James Garner when speaking to EnglandFootball.org afterwards.
Slovenia, managed by ex-Tottenham winger Milenko Ačimovič, were fortunate that England’s finishing was not what it usually is. Indeed, not what it has been so far this international break. Morgan Gibbs-White shanked over from Spence’s intelligent cut-back. Ramsey missed the target from a Gibbs-White cross, and couldn’t believe it. And Charlie Cresswell of Leeds United was denied a header from a corner by Benjamin Markuš’s goalline block.Embed from Getty Images
Cameron Archer and Angel Gomes were introduced in a desperate attempt to salvage something from this game. In added time, that paid dividends as Archer scored his fourth goal of the week for the U21s, striking an angled effort hard enough that goalkeeper Martin Turk could only help it on its way in. What an international break for the Aston Villa 20-year-old. “Cameron’s been a real plus in this window,” his manager said.
Slovenia spent the rest of stoppage time teetering nervously on the ropes, but they stood firm, held Carsley’s talented bunch at arm’s length, and closed out a fully deserved fourth win from their ten qualifiers. The hard work is done for England; they’ve qualified and Slovenia haven’t. But this loss should concern Carsley, because the visitors deserved their victory.
To celebrate qualification, the players were supposed to be enjoying a few beers in the dressing room after this match. Instead, Smith Rowe and Ben Johnson were slumped in chairs in the lobby, looking desperate to board the coach and desperate for their long-awaited holidays.