Wednesday, 28 March 2018

27/03/18 Review: England U21 vs Ukraine U21

England U21 2-1 Ukraine U21 (EURO 2019 U21 Qualifier, Group 4)
Bramall Lane

It's always nice to be going back to Yorkshire and it is even better when the occasion is for footballing business and yesterday's outing was one that I'd highly anticipated as I took the Howden Brothers to their first ever international match for England Under 21's EURO Qualifier against Ukraine. With a 6pm kick-off, Sean, Chris and I agreed to meet in Uttoxeter and head on over to the city of steel. We arrived in good time and as I had a fairly long-standing history with visiting a friend over there, I was able to direct us to Champs sports bar- the home of monstrously filling food and many a cheap beer.

And a bike, apparently
Once the lads had fumbled their way through a helping of cheesy hot dog fries, we watched a bit of pre-match build up to the game until a change in bar staff meant that the channel hopped over on to a documentary about AIDS- yup, the not so perfect precursor to a game of football. With that, we left the bar and took the "brisk ten minute walk" from the bar to the ground that had been recommended by the barman we'd conversed with upon arrival. A good 25 minutes later we arrived at the big red wall that would prove to be the home of Championship side and the game's hosts, Sheffield United.

Briskly does it
The Blades, who were formed in 1889, have of course hosted international football at this level before but that didn't mean there would be any less hype for this EURO Qualifier and with England's Young Lions sitting top of the heap at the moment, owning a five point lead over today's visitors and the Dutch, this game would be crucial for England's youngsters if they wanted to keep a hold of the driving seat for the ride towards Italy's 2019 edition of the European Tournament. Having already seen England win 5-0 in a Qualifier for the 2017 competition at Walsall's Bescot Stadium, my expectations were sky-high, which is never a good thing for any person following any England side, and thus I had made a 2-0 prediction for the home side captained by Demarai Gray. Sean predicted and bet on a 4-1 win whilst Chris went for a 3-0.

This guy just happy to get a midweek run out
After circumnavigating the majority of the outside of the stadium, we eventually made our way into the world's poshest ticketing office to collect our tickets before making our around to watch a bit of the team warm-ups. Lots of kids and school groups were invited into the evening's game, so we thought it best to take advantage and accept a free England flag each to wave at our leisure as we witnessed the Young Lions score. We swiftly made our way around to the Kop End, which is where we'd be housing ourselves, and found ourselves to be within the first few to actually take our seats inside- one of the things not to be unexpected with a 6pm kick-off.

Eager was not the word
The 45 minutes of warm-ups and top quality tunes past us by soon enough and we were even treated to a blast of the Stranger Things theme tune which led me to believe that we were listening to somebody's i-pod on shuffle rather than a perfectly planned pre-match playlist. As the time approached the ground started to fill-up quickly as people rushed in just in time for kick-off, and before we knew it the two sides entered the field. Ukraine started the game on the strong foot and it was Shakhtar Donetsk's Oleksandr Pikhalyonok who hit towards Angus Gunn's goal in the 4th minute. The game continued to be fairly even in terms of possession, but an often disjointed style from England meant that the visitors remained on top as Artem Dovbyk, based in Denmark, headed on target and tested Gunn in the England goal. At the other end some of the fans thought the hosts had scored as Gray crossed in a teasing cross which was deflected into the side-netting by a defender in yellow. England's biggest threat so far, in an inconsistent fashion, had been James Maddison of Norwich City and the Jack Wilshire-esque attacking midfielder had certainly demonstrated good footwork and intent to get things going and after soaking up another few Ukrainian attacks it would be he who carved open the defence to assist the opening goal. Shortly after Aidy Boothroyd swapped the two England wingers around, the hosts started to make some great inside runs, but it was the aforementioned Maddison who picked out a nice pass in-between Zotko and Lukyanchuk to allow Dominic Calvert-Lewin to run in and just about beat an on-rushing Andriy Lunin to prod the ball into the net. England 1-0 Ukraine. In truth, the 41st minute goal had been perhaps a bit harsh on Ukraine and the Howden Brothers agreed that a better side would have punished England's dangerous methods of trying to play out from the back. I'm not a huge fan of this tactic anyway, also seen by the senior squad in the game at Wembley, but in particularly the way that England's young guns were trying to force-feed this method into their game-plan looked very dubious and left us exposed on more than one occasion. As the Ref blew for half-time, it was time to go for a wander around and stretch our legs in the cold Sheffield surrounds.

A decent, albeit unspectacular half. Classic England
Joking aside, at a tenner a ticket we'd already had our money's worth with getting the flag upon entry, but the fact the second-half was bound to be up for grabs for both sides meant that we'd been treated to some good competitive football too- which is always a bonus. The only downside to report really, as with any match of this nature, was the lack of atmosphere in the ground and also the constant getting up and down of kids for the toilet. Even with over 22,000 in attendance, the usual Blades ultras were nowhere to be seen in the Kop End and although it was nice to be watching international football in a great ground, I couldn't help but wish we were seated up in the opposite corner where the 20 or so away fans sat and jumped around on a near-permanent basis.
The closest we saw to a rowdy crowd was when they announced they'd sold out of pies
Back on the field, the second-half kicked off and with it came a tense opening 15. It wasn't until nearly the hour-mark when England carved their next chance, as Joe Worrall of Nottingham Forest vollied a close-range shot straight at Lunin. The Zorya Luhansk keeper stopped this particular effort with ease and set off a good counter for his side, whilst the stands started to fill with kids shining the torches of their i-Phones. That's the problem with kids these days, they can't just be happy to wave the free flags! In the 64th minute we were treated to save of the game and it came from the eventual Man of the Match performer Jonjoe Kenny. The Everton right-back came to his country's rescue as a Ukrainian bullet header passed Gunn, only to see Kenny on the line and leaping up to header the goal-bound effort over the bar- outstanding. From this moment on the visitors continued to attack and Mykola Shaparenko was introduced to try and help his side draw level. The long-haired menace looked very good in the midfield and the Dynamo Kiev number 10 looked well up for it- and when his chance eventually came in the 83rd minute he nodded home the late equaliser to the delight of the couple of dozen over yonder. England 1-1 Ukraine. By this point the England line-up had been changed, with Ademola Lookman and Dominic Solanke adding some new attacking dimensions, so it would be up to them to try and now break forward and regain the victory. Holland's win over Andorra had at this stage cut England's lead to just two points at the top of the group, so a win was all the more crucial now and for the England fans who stayed until the end it was well worth the wait. As a lot of people departed, presumably to see the senior fixture between England and Italy on TV, we watched on as a cross came in from the left-wing to be met by the head of Liverpool's Solanke and then in a moment which seemed to last forever we watched agonisingly as the ball bounced up and into the net to seal an 89th minute dramatic winner. England 2-1 Ukraine.

Last-minute winner's, are there anything better?
The game ran down and the game ended, meaning it was three more points for the Young Lions. Sean, Chris and I got our skates on and paced back to Champs to watch the less exciting Wembley encounter whilst chowing down on more finely fried food and then eventually heading back on the drive to Staffordshire. It's safe to say that we had a great time in Sheffield and it was nice for me to tick off my 19th Football League Ground and 107th overall.

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