Raheem Sterling on target as England rise above abuse to rout Hungary
It was an evening when, yet again, England had more than mere footballing problems thrown at them. It started with a hail of plastic cups, first for Raheem Sterling and then Luke Shaw, from the diehard Hungary supporters behind one of the goals, and it escalated to a firework – which was hurled in the wake of Harry Maguire’s header for 3-0.
England’s players were celebrating as a group and it was a mighty relief that it missed its target, fizzing for a while before burning out. And then in the closing stages came the low point that everybody had dreaded.
Sterling, who scored the opening goal and made the second for Harry Kane, was the target of monkey chants from the home crowd and he was not the only player to suffer. The noises were also directed at the substitute Jude Bellingham as he warmed up on the sideline. Photographs would later emerge of Hungary fans making monkey gestures.
The Hungary support have been given a two-game stadium ban by Uefa for racist and homophobic behaviour at the Euro 2020 finals – they will serve it when the Nations League kicks off next year rather than in Fifa competition, which feels like a nonsense – and this was another occasion when the worst excesses of the minority bubbled to the surface.
The pre-match talk had been heavy on whether England’s black players would face problems and the Hungarian Football Association president, Sandor Csanyi, had used his programme notes to call on fans not to make any discriminatory chants.
That went out of the window as England, inspired by Sterling, ran riot in the second half, slicing through Hungary at will, and the positive to salvage was that Gareth Southgate’s players appeared determined to let their football do the talking. It had been a similar story in the 6-0 win in Bulgaria two years ago – another tie that was blighted by monkey taunts for the black players.
Southgate had demanded no “swanning about” from his players in the wake of their run to the Euro 2020 final; they could not expect to turn up and simply roll Hungary over. The mentality had to be right and it was, from the control that they enjoyed during a slow-burning first half to the ruthless way that they cut loose after the interval.
But the depressing reality was that the post-match discussion was heavy on the kind of subjects that have no place in football or, indeed, wider society.
Sterling’s goal came early in the second half, the culmination of a flowing move. When he ran towards one of the corner flags he lifted his shirt to reveal a message to his friend, Steffie Gregg, who has passed away at a tragically young age. The ultras were on his back thereafter, hurling abuse when he appealed for a couple of penalties and it was of the worst possible nature.
The tone had been set, in some ways, by the reaction of the crowd to England’s collective taking of the knee before kick-off. There were ear-splitting jeers from all corners and not just the Carpathian Brigade, the hardcore group who were dressed in black shirts and stationed behind the goal where the trouble would later flare.
As Southgate had noted on Wednesday, this type of thing is hardly exclusive to non-English crowds, while it bears reporting that the hosts respected the British anthem when it played.
Southgate’s players set about drawing the sting from the partisan crowd, hogging the ball from the outset and squeezing high. It was all England, Hungary restricted to scraps although, in the first half, there was little cutting edge.
That changed after the break. England looked sharper, their intent more pronounced, and they ought to have led before they did. Harry Kane used his body to manoeuvre himself on to Kyle Walker’s through-ball, getting away from the centre-back Willi Orban only to shoot too close to Peter Gulacsi. It was an uncharacteristic miss.
The breakthrough was a beauty, started by Rice winning the ball high up from Orban and the ever-dangerous Jack Grealish playing in the overlapping Mason Mount, having drawn a couple of red shirts to him. The cross was true and Sterling opened up his body to finish inside the far corner.
Hungary could not get out and England turned the screw. The second goal followed a Kalvin Phillips interception and was created by Sterling, whose cross deflected for Kane to bury a diving header.
Kane should have scored again only to be denied by Gulacsi after a Grealish pass and then came the firework controversy. Shaw was pelted with plastic cups before he took a corner and, when Maguire’s header went through Gulacsi’s hands and England celebrated, the missile was launched.
Grealish would again release Kane and again his shot hit the goalkeeper. Then, after Jordan Pickford had made his only save from the substitute Daniel Salloi, Rice’s low shot was fumbled into the net by Gulacsi. England had taken a major step towards qualification to next year’s World Cup. They took it while staring down all manner of hostility.