Diverse Wembley crowd’s optimism gives way to boos as England toil

<span>Young England fans outside Wembley before England’s 1-0 defeat to Iceland.</span><span>Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA</span>
Young England fans outside Wembley before England’s 1-0 defeat to Iceland.Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA

The connection between Gareth Southgate’s England team and the country it represents is rich but not without its complexities. That is to say that it can often feel like people both adore them and are frustrated by them in equal measure (and sometimes at the same time). Friday night’s match at Wembley provided a good opportunity to observe this dynamic in action as England lost their final fixture before travelling to Germany as one of the favourites for Euro 2024.

The first thing to be noted was the atmosphere as you stepped out of Wembley Park station and onto Olympic Way. At the top of the long bank of stairs and along the packed thoroughfare there were families everywhere pausing to capture the moment. Posing for photographs in stetsons with the George’s cross on them, Jack Grealish scarves around their shoulders and any number of vintage England shirts, this was a joyous, friendly atmosphere. It was something not so long ago you would have associated more with a concert than a football match.

Related: England booed off after failing against Iceland once more in Euros warm-up

This is a good thing. For those with memories going back, say, eight years (and that last defeat by Iceland), the idea that watching England could be something enjoyed by both adults and children, boys and girls, and in crowds where ethnic diversity was both rich and unremarkable, would seem far-fetched. Thanks to Southgate and his players (and Sarina Wiegman and hers, too) that has changed, one hopes permanently.

Expectations have changed too. This wasn’t a crowd of daytrippers, even the children knew their football (I spoke to one young boy Archie who, in describing why Grealish might be a big miss for England explained thoughtfully why his transfer to Manchester City had allowed Pep Guardiola to transform his game into one of the most effective in the Premier League) but they all shared a common optimism and a belief that England ought to succeed.

Olly and Fergus, two 20-something friends standing at the bottom of the Olympic Steps taking in the sights as they waited to head in, said they were more hopeful about this summer’s than they were at Euro 2020, when England were effectively the home team. “We were just saying that after three tournaments Southgate has got his momentum and has built what he’s set out to do,” Fergus said.

“It’s also a little bit scary as well because I feel like England always go into tournaments with a slightly lower expectation”, said Olly. “Or maybe there’s a big expectation, but you kind of doubt it at the same time. With this one, you think: “they have actually got this.”

The Josephs family, father and two sons, were equally upbeat. “I really think they can do this”, said Josephs senior (people were generally willing to give either a christian or surname but not both), “I really think they can win.” But then came the caveat. “I think they can win if they use the right players and the right tactics. Because one thing I’ve noticed in football, a lot of the other managers seem to be a bit more adventurous than England in their tactics. They’ll be standing back, acting defensively. Accelerate, that’s what I think.”

Inside Wembley and you could pick up a general desire for acceleration. The noise in the ground was good, the atmosphere bright, and when England conceded awfully in the 12th minute it didn’t really shift a notch. But the biggest moments of engagement were for moments of skill (usually a flick) from Phil Foden or Cole Palmer. Given the ponderous nature of much of England’s play, apparently unsure of how to use that abundant ability to unpick a massed Iceland defence, there were not many successful tricks to cheer, and when half-time came there were boos.

The second half saw an armada of paper airplanes descending from the stands as supporters sought to entertain themselves (aircraft often constructed from leaflets advertising an anti-social behaviour hotline). It was only in the final 10 minutes that the crowd felt sufficiently engaged to get up on their feet in a mixture of hope and frustration, willing an England equaliser. That failed to materialise and so when the final whistle came the boos returned, only this time louder and more widespread.

Related: England 0-1 Iceland: Euro 2024 warm-up – as it happened

It may not have felt like it on the night, but having a crowd that expects you both to win and win well is a good sign. It shows at least that the team is capable of it. At the same time such high expectations are difficult to reach and even trickier to maintain. If this is the tournament where hopes exceed reality then it will surely be Southgate’s last.

Whatever the outcome, however, the manager’s legacy will be real. And for some reason the transformation Southgate has wrought not just on the England’s men’s side but on its football culture seemed to be best encapsulated on this night by Annabel, a young New Yorker living in London who had brought her American friends to watch the team she now supports. “The 2018 World Cup is when I really got into watching football and the England team is what got me into it,” she said, wearing the red England shirt from the Qatar World Cup. “I identify with this team. They’ve a lot of young players who are my age and it’s kind of wild to watch them, how talented they are.” Annabel had caught the bug of the new England, but knew enough about the old to share her expectations for the Euros with a knowing laugh. “I think they can go all the way,” she said, “but let’s see.”