Euro 2020: England can harness Wembley energy by taking positive approach and bringing back spirit of Euro 96 – Stuart Rayner

For the second time in a week, Wembley was a weird place, but in a different way for the European Championship game against Scotland.

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 6:39 am
PLAY YOUR PART: England fans cheer as England's Raheem Sterling, left, celebrates with Mason Mount after scoring what proved to be the winning goal against Croatia at Euro 2020 at Wembley. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/AP.

Maybe it is the size of it, maybe the history, but somehow empty or sparsely-populated stands feel different – worse – at football’s most famous ground.

The last couple of weeks have reminded us even lightly-populated stadia can still create banging atmospheres - the 20,000-plus at Wembley’s opening two matches have been almost as noisy as the 4,500 who watched Barnsley’s play-off semi-final against Swansea City - but it has not always helped England

When they began the tournament, the sun shone, the football flowed and the fans lapped it up. The scepticism some non-Leeds United fans had about Kalvin Phillips quickly evaporated when the midfielder led his country’s high-energy start against Croatia.

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GOLDEN DAYS: Paul Gascoigne celebrates scoring against Scotland at Wembley during their Group clash at Euro 96. Picture: Neil Munns/PA Wire.

With Phillips laying on the only goal, the World Cup runners-up were defeated and all was well with the world.

Actually, even then, not quite all. There was a period early in the second half as England stood off Croatia, letting them play the ball around relatively harmlessly, when the home fans began urging their team on – intended as encouragement, but a sign of growing frustration that it was still 0-0. Soon Sheffielder Kyle Walker played the ball down the line, Phillips turned it inside, Raheem Sterling scored and the relief poured down.

Friday was different. The game was in the evening, not the afternoon, the weather wet instead of baking.

Whereas the chatter, shirts and songs on Sunday’s train down from Yorkshire, on the tube, up Wembley Way and inside the ground had been almost entirely English, Friday’s songs all seemed to be about “super John McGinn”, navy outdid white, saltires and lions rampant outnumbered St George’s crosses. The ground sounded more like Hampden Park than Wembley.

England fans show their support at Wembley during Friday night's Euro 2020 clash with Scotland. Picture: Nick Potts/PA

The longer the Scots enjoyed themselves, the less the England fans did.

The sight of Jack Grealish tying up his boots on the big screen early in the second half brought cheers from them. Like the exhortations at the same point of the previous game, they were well-meaning but the underlying message was not – “about bloody time”.

As England laboured to only their third Euro 2020 shot on target, the frustrations grew. Grealish did not open up Scotland’s well-secured defence, Harry Kane looked like he was pulling a caravan until being uncoupled by his substitution, and Phil Foden’s Paul Gascoigne impression was of the first half of the 1996 Scotland game, not the second.

Phillips could not recreate his weekend heroics and, at full-time, England were booed off.

For a year home advantage has not been a thing, but nor has home disadvantage. Now they are back.

Hungary played brilliantly to a 61,000 Budapest crowd the next day, feeding off its energy to make world champions so good in their opening game nothing to be scared of.

England could do with harnessing some of that, and have it in their own hands.

The only time this country has hosted a European Championship, Wembley played a huge part from the moment it burst into “Three Lions” at half-time against Scotland.

The players upped their games and turned 0-0 into 2-0, the Netherlands were breathtakingly swept aside and whilst a quarter-final against Spain was a grind, the supporters helped turn the penalty shoot-out into something... enjoyable. The performance against Germany was brilliant, just not the penultimate spot kick.

If – if – England beat the Czech Republic this evening they could use a bit of extra help against France, holders Portugal or a Germany side who rediscovered some mojo at the weekend and, more importantly, are Germany.

That game, plus the semi-finals and final (with or without England) will be at Wembley, whereas finishing second in the group will take Gareth Southgate’s men to Copenhagen (then, we hope, Rome). It would be nice to think England’s players wanted to be at Wembley, confident there is nothing to fear if 20,000 fans have their back.

But it is a two-way street. England fans know how brilliant their attacking players can be – they see it on Match of the Day every week of the Premier League season – and want more of it. As in the first half against Croatia, the Three Lions must play with a positivity and a dynamism that is an open invitation to roar them on.