England 0 — Scotland 0
The latest edition of the oldest fixture in international football will not live long in the memory.
England and Scotland played out a goalless draw at the Euro 2020 tournament on Friday night, a game played in unrelenting rain and amid unrelenting noise from the 22,500 spectators inside London’s Wembley Stadium.
Though not fully satisfying either team, the result maintains hope of better days. The tournament’s format, with the four best third-placed finishers in the six groups qualifying for the knockout stage, means England have all but guaranteed passage into the next round.
And they could yet be joined by Scotland, who return to Hampden Park in Glasgow next week, where a victory at home to Croatia would give them a shout at progressing.
“We’ll take a point. It keeps us alive,” said Scotland captain Andy Robertson. “But it’s important we use this feeling to get a positive result on Tuesday.”
England manager Gareth Southgate recognised, however, that a match against their northern neighbours is a matter of historic importance that reaches beyond this tournament.
“We understand it’s a disappointment for our supporters especially,” he said. “It was really difficult to find space tonight. Scotland defended really well and we weren’t able to open them up.”
Ahead of the game, thousands of Scottish fans had travelled south, disregarding official advice not to make the trip because of the pandemic.
Outside Wembley, many sang, drank and quizzed stewards about whether they might be allowed in. Inside the arena, the Tartan Army appeared to number many more than the 3,000 with officially allocated tickets and they duly created a din that drowned out the English support.
The cacophony continued even as England, one of the world’s top-ranked teams, started brightly. Defender John Stones hit the post with a header. Good openings were missed by Phil Foden and Mason Mount, the home side’s youthful attacking midfielders.
But as has become England’s habit, the team could not maintain its ferocious pressing, or chase opponents when they had the ball. Scotland edged into the game. Defender Stephen O’Donnell produced the best effort of a dour first half, a volley saved by England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
“We lacked intensity,” admitted England defender Tyrone Mings.
The second half was also dominated by England. The team refused to panic, as their predecessors often had before; disdaining to hoof the ball in hope, they instead chose to maintain careful possession.
A fierce shot by Mount was parried by Scotland keeper David Marshall. Reece James and Luke Shaw shot high and wide from good positions. Their opponents launched stealthy counter-attacks through indefatigable players such as 20-year-old midfielder Billy Gilmour.
“We played one of the favourites for the tournament tonight”, said Scotland manager Steve Clarke. “We worked hard without the ball and we were creative with it. It’s only a point but it’s a good night for us.”
In the 73rd minute, Southgate substituted captain and star striker Harry Kane, symbolising England’s malfunctioning attack. “I don’t think Harry being taken off is a reflection of his performance, or him,” said Mings. “We all have to take responsibility when things don’t go right.”
A charitable view is that Southgate stuck to a game plan that suits tournament football, with a formation that prioritises defensive solidity over open attacking.
After all, winning this group would come with the poison-pill prize of a match in the next round against France, Portugal or Germany — among the strongest sides in the competition. The counterargument is that England will have to beat a high-ranked team sooner or later anyway.
Perhaps the importance of not losing on Friday reflected the relative caution of the sides. Scotland went to the 1998 World Cup with an official song titled “Don’t Come Home Too Soon”, a lament at the team’s failure to ever qualify for the knockout stages of a major tournament.
By the end of this match, Scots were instead proudly singing their unofficial national anthem, ‘Flower of Scotland’, recalling Robert the Bruce’s victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314. Not losing to the old enemy on Friday was treated as another important victory; pride retained, hope restored.
By contrast, at the final whistle, English fans had given up singing songs and booed their players instead.