Ignoring the scare stories, Aaron D’Silva got his first taste of England playing away in a major tournament by travelling to the Ukraine for the Group D opener against France. He writes about his experience for The Substantive.
On the evening of the 28th May Sol Campbell warned that if England fans were to travel to Poland and Ukraine for this summer’s European Championships they would risk coming back home in coffins due to claims of entrenched racism and violence. On the afternoon of the 11th of June, hours before England’s opening game, thousands of patriotic fans stood in and outside the Golden Lion Pub, Lenin Sq, Donetsk, basked in glorious 32 degree sunshine, sipping a 75p Ukrainian beer and in jubilant voice, screaming ‘ We’ll do what we want’, in relation to the ex-England player’s claims. A definitive reminder that what you see is not always what you get when travelling away in Europe for football.
I must say that having watched the programme that night, and having tickets for the opening group game, I considered whether I would go, let alone pack or wear any colours in Donetsk. I would be in holiday in Athens a few days before travelling to Donetsk and even considered staying out of the sunshine to avoid being to tanned. I mean, they don’t like those of colour do they?
However, touching down in Donetsk after a connecting flight from Kiev was the very start of a world-wind 2 days that would leave me wanting more from the Euro tournament. Stepping of the plane and walking towards the terminal was the first experience. A concrete block, guarded by military officers equipped with their Kalashnikovs was stark reminder that this was the Eastern Block. Passports taken, and photographed by what can only be described as a disposable camera, there was no luggage belt and the guard pointed at the aeroplane luggage cart and just said, ‘’luggage, there’’, pointing towards the cart for everyone to get their own baggage out. The first impression was they weren’t even ready for visitors, let alone a major international football tournament.
It is fair to say there definitely were some language barriers on route to the accommodation in the taxi but we got there, in the end. A university dormitory in the middle of Donetsk should be sufficient for a whistle-stop stay and we were pleasantly surprised by the organisation of the place. They were ready for our booking, located us to our 6th floor room, and showed us to the toilets on alternating floors and the basement showers. One room, four beds, clean, basic, but tidy, it would do.
Awake early on the morning of the game, and after a brief contemplation, we threw on our England shirts and headed for a 10 minute walk towards the Donbass Arena. And for the very first time since arriving, I appreciated why they got the nod from UEFA. Beautifully landscaped in the middle of the city, the Donbass looked like the mother ship had just landed. As clean as you like, inside a memorial park and alongside a lake and fountain, the stadium was unlike the concrete buildings cramped behind old pubs and clubs that you see wandering past a certain White Hart Lane, for example. It was clearly evident to see why it has been classed as an ‘Elite’ class stadium by UEFA. Magnificent.
After tasting a Ukrainian delicacy of dumplings for a late breakfast and stopping for a few a pictures with friendly Ukrainian locals we headed towards Lenin Square and the Golden Lion pub, where England fans would gather. The heat would grow to 32 degrees and by noon, the pub was packed, aligned with England flags from Woking, Huddersfield and Hartlepool in buoyant atmosphere with not a fight or frolic in sight. Ukrainians, Russians and even the odd German gathered to join the drinks and camaraderie being delivered by the thousands of England fans. There wasn’t a sniff of the violence which we had been led to believe was lurking round every corner as the relations between different sets of fans were seemingly very good and the two metropolitan police officers and two Ukrainian officers that were visible in the pub were only called upon for photo opportunities.
To the first match and through the powers of technology we had learnt that Downing was out and Roy had opted to give young Oxlade-Chamberlain a start, a decision that I think was welcomed by 99 per cent of England fans, who probably questioned Downing inclusion in the squad, let alone a starting berth. My belief is that despite his mediocre past performances for England, he is another player who gets rewarded with an international jersey through playing for a big club in England unlike Nathan Dyer, Matt Jarvis or Leon Osman who all have as much of a case. The decision was the only one to make really, the other 10 picked themselves with Young off the front in Rooney’s absence and Welbeck up top to keep the French defenders on their toes. As a Milner fan I think he would offer that much needed protection for Glen Johnson on the right who would invariably be up against one of the best left sided international partnerships in Evra and Ribery. I was confident that Lescott could partner Terry at the back after a magnificent season at City and with his club goalkeeper between the sticks I was assured that we were solid at the back.
Despite over confidence in past tournaments, every England fan outside the pub would have been happy to leave the Donbass with a point. The two friendlies beforehand has given insight into what Roy Hodgson’s England would be about, hard to beat, well organised and well planned. France would dictate the game with the better footballers and England would try and frustrate the opposition and maybe nick a goal. For me it worked to plan for Roy. England started brightly and getting the Ox on the ball provided us in the stands with a rare glimpse of exciting talent in an England shirt as he drove toward the French penalty area. If only he had been on the end of the ball slipped in behind to Milner in the opening 20 minutes we would have been celebrating a much deserved lead. Unfortunately, Milner didn’t have the composure to slot home after doing the hard work and rounding Lloris.
It seemed to spark the French into action as Cabaye, Ribery and Nasri began to get on the ball, although Parker and Gerrard stopped the service into Benzema very well. “Make it difficult for France and play with a structure and organisation” would have been the message from Roy from the start with the aim of trying to punish them with a bit of quality. That quality was provided with a captain’s free-kick with half hour gone. Steven Gerrard whipped in a perfect cross onto the head of Lescott for 1-0 and a dream start for Roy. I feel set pieces may well be pivotal for England in this championship with delivery from Young and Gerrard to the heads of Lescott, Terry, Rooney and even Carroll, especially if we continue to play with caution.
If only we could have got to half time with the score the same. With 5000 England fans bouncing in the Donbass stands singing, ‘’Roy Hodgson’s Barmy Army’’ and 2000 French fans sinking into their seats, it was such a shame the feeling couldn’t have lasted longer than 9 minutes. England had already been warned of the French quality when Hart made a point blank save before French dominance on the ball, and Samir Nasri’s quality in particular, would pay dividends as he wasn’t closed down quick enough on the edge of the box and he shot hard and low to level to score. As much as I felt like running on the Shakhtar pitch to punch the City midfielder in his face as he ran away with a finger on his lip, I couldn’t deny his influence on the ball and his sheer quality to dictate a game of football. I suppose England were missing Rooney for that task; however I am not sure he could have had such an impact.
Half-time and still all to play for I felt France would continue to dominate and I wasn’t wrong. France did control and Benzema started to become more bullish, but in a strange way I felt confident watching the England defence. Although the French were moving the ball around nicely at times, it was in front of the back 4 (or 9 if you include Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Young and the Ox). England looked comfortable and Hart had little to do. France were frustrated and England were doing the job.
Parker was again outstanding. Ever the work horse, he broke down the play, played with his heart and when on the ball, played simple passes so England always kept the ball. Gerrard, in the same way, dug deep, put his foot in when needed and provided a few glimpses of quality, notably a run to the edge of the French penalty box that should have warranted a free-kick in a dangerous position but one of a number of awful decision from the Italian referee.
I felt Young looked out of position and although he has been deployed in the hole before, in reality he is a winger and the link with a frustrated Danny Welbeck wasn’t great, though he tried. As the final whistle blew in the Donbass Roy would have been gleaming, as were most in the stands. A good solid and sturdy start against the team, that on paper, would be our toughest challengers and without our main man. Happy days.
As the England team trotted off, fans rose to their feet to Roy’s new revolution. A job done inside the Donbass and a good start to Euro 2012 despite getting only a point. Critics will point to a lack of expansion, attack and creativeness. For me these people should realise what players we have at our disposal; no Rooney, no Wilshere and no Lampard means we have to stick with solid, hard-working terrier type. None more so than Scotty Parker who puts his body on the line every time he crosses the white line, blocking shot after shot as the French came forward. I would point to the exclusion of Paul Scholes, for me still the best midfielder in England, and Michael Carrick, who had a fantastic season at United and is simply an international footballer playing domestic football. He keeps the ball well, has a great range of passing, short and long, is disciplined enough to sit in front of the back four, links play and is England’s answer to Spain’s Xavi Alonso. However, Roy has opted for a squad that got England to the tournament and so be it.
Despite a useful point that puts England in a good position in the group, a test will now come when England are now favourites instead of being underdogs against France. Expectation, after this opening game will now be high and this may be the downfall. I feel Roy’s team should maybe play with a bit more expansion against the Swedes, considering they need to attack after a loss in their opener. Oxlade- Chamberlain deserves another start in my book and maybe Young could replace Milner allowing Welbeck to drop into the hole with Carroll to challenge the towering tough Swedish defence. There is no doubt that England fans back Roy now and although things can change in one result I feel that won’t happen against Sweden.
Lastly, to summarise, my much anticipated first international tournament was a success. As our opener finished, thousands of England fans walked back through a packed Donetsk, draped in St George’s flags. We found a student bar ready for Ukraine’s opener with Sweden, where we were met with open arms inside a cigarette smoke fuelled place and able to enjoy a final few beers before jetting back to Gatwick the next day.
On that note, Sol Campbell got it wrong. This is a country which has its problems, no doubt about it, however, they gave me a perfect, safe and sound tournament, a terrific backdrop to watch quality football and absolutely no racism or violence whatsoever. My thoughts are with Mr & Mrs Oxlade- Chamberlain who probably watched the same BBC Panorama programme I did in late May, were put off by the exaggeration of Ukrainian thuggery, racism and hooliganism, and missed their sons international tournament debut. Luckily I didn’t.
The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview and download from Amazon and Smashwords. With past recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey in the 2010-11 Champions League, from a qualifier in Berne to the front row at the Final, full of the flavour of the escapism that travelling to football over land and sea brings.