England vs Scotland was more than a tense encounter – it was a reminder of sport's shared joy

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Fans of Scotland wearing kilts show their support after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group D match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium on June 18, 2021 in London, England - Getty Images Europe
Fans of Scotland wearing kilts show their support after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group D match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium on June 18, 2021 in London, England - Getty Images Europe

Once every 25 years: there are comets that come around more quickly than Anglo-Scottish dust-ups at major tournaments. Given the invitation to party like it was 1996, the 22,000 at Wembley were not prepared to let a little north-west London drizzle muffle the revelries. Rarely, outside anniversaries of the Battle of Bannockburn, can Flower of Scotland have been invested with such fervour. Even Steve Clarke, who resists overt displays of emotion about as studiously as Gareth Southgate does diplomatic rows, looked moved. And to think that a president of the Scottish Football Association once had the cheek to call it a dirge.

Of all the pernicious social changes of the past 15 months, one has been the death of spontaneity. You notice it still on the approaches to Wembley, where some fans are seen giving themselves last-minute nasal swab tests just to be allowed past the first cordon of security. Letting loose is sadly incompatible with the covenants of the Covid age. And yet for one evening, these neuroses seemed to dissolve. From the moment The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond boomed over the public address system, a melodious counterpoint to the sozzled refrain of Three Lions, this occasion was marked like the restoration of old enmities than the almost-forgotten shared joy of sport that truly mattered.

Police conservatively estimated that 20,000 had travelled south of the border, spilling out of Euston concourses and into the West End, drawn towards a mass rally in Leicester Square not by a promise of giant screens but by the sheer thrill of joining a crowd again. The official urgings for supporters not to congregate in the capital unless they had a ticket felt futile. After all, this match had been billed back in February, when the Prime Minister set out his infernal roadmap, as the harbinger of “Freedom Day”. So far as the travelling hordes were concerned, it still was.

All through the match, the public-address man had the unenviable task of reminding restless fans to adhere to mask-wearing and social-distancing. Every time, his plaintive messages were drowned out by the din, much as the isolated boos for players taking the knee at kick-off were countered by a strategic rendition of Uefa’s Euros anthem.

Billy Gilmour of Scotland applauds the fans after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group D match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium on June 18, 2021 in London, England - Shaun Botterill - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
Billy Gilmour of Scotland applauds the fans after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group D match between England and Scotland at Wembley Stadium on June 18, 2021 in London, England - Shaun Botterill - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

The curious aspect of the night was that, to an overwhelming degree, it was Scottish voices lifting the mood. Just as there had been a tartan takeover of central London by day, there was practically a Hampden roar at Wembley by night. As England toiled to establish a first-half foothold, about the only home fans heard were those berating Southgate for what they perceived as pedestrian tactics.

Anticipating a match a quarter of a century in the making, some talk had dwelt on tribal hatred. The mind drifted back to pictures of Rodney Marsh tackling Willie Donnachie at Hampden in 1972 with a belligerence that looked close to assault. The tone was set by suggestions that the Scots would be possessed with the same fury with which they repelled Edward II. That might be a touch hyperbolic, but when a few English fans began arriving in full 14th-century regalia, you sensed it could be a torrid night. Scotland, true to form, were nothing if not tigerish in their challenges, draining momentum from the game as both teams lapsed into spates of fouls.

Would this be a mirror image of '96, when a needling first half had given way to the Technicolor glory of the second, courtesy of Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne? Phil Foden was evidently hoping to invoke the spirit of Gazza, to judge by the ever-deeper shades of peroxide with which he has been experimenting at this tournament. But inspiration proved elusive. Foden, potentially England’s most creative influence, was substituted after just an hour, while Harry Kane cut much the same figure he had against Croatia, aimless and adrift, touching the ball a mere 10 times in 45 minutes.

Ultimately, perhaps, it is best not to linger too long on the game’s deficiencies. True, it hardly resembled the orgy of Scots-versus-Sassenachs bloodlust that was widely predicted. And yes, after the catharsis of the win over Croatia, it was a little bleak to see England succumb to an abundance of caution. But measure the match by what it was, rather than what it was not. On the pitch, this was a tense arm-wrestle between two teams that recognised that a draw, given the shakedown in Group D, might not be the worst outcome for either of them. Off it, it was something far greater, a celebration by supporters oblivious to the aesthetic deficiencies of the spectacle. For anybody present, this was the closest approximation of normality they would have enjoyed since March 2020. Granted, the football was dire at times, but the feeling of communal abandon was one to endure long after the final whistle sounded.

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