It’s coooooming home, it’s COMING! Football’s coming home!
A mild Thursday night in March saw Caleb and I catch a train headed to Bristol, a short ten minute journey from work. We had an evening at Ashton Gate ahead of us, home to Bristol City but playing host to the Young Lions, England’s immensely talented under-21 squad. They were facing off against Poland’s next golden generation, in what was set to be an exciting and memorable evening. I had never been to an international fixture before so was eager to get my ENG-GER-LAAAAND going.
Caleb had spotted the fixture, thanks to some targeted advertising from the FA on our social media accounts, and took advantage of an early-bird offer that resulted in his ticket costing just £10. I didn’t take much persuading to accompany him and he picked up a ticket for me as well. Good fella that Caleb.
We stepped off the train at Temple Meads and made the short walk along the River Avon towards Ashton Gate. We had some time before kickoff so stopped into The Burger Joint on North Street to get some dinner. I enjoyed a strawberry shake and a burger of my own creation – you fill out a form for your order, marking off the type of bun you want, the fillings, the sauces, everything is customisable.
With our bellies full and our appetites satisfied, we turned the corner and were greeted by the floodlights of Ashton Gate, and some blazing pyrotechnics from the Poles. It was not a sight I expected to see at an under-21s fixture. At a full international of course, but I thought this was going to be a more relaxed and subdued affair. The Polish fans had other ideas though, and came armed with their loudest songs and brightest flares, and together they put on a fantastic show all night.
We scanned our tickets through the turnstiles and I was instantly struck by how impressive everything was. Only redeveloped a couple of years ago, Bristol City’s 27,000 capacity home is comfortably one of the nicest stadiums I’ve been to in a while, with first-class facilities and large open spaces for the masses to move around with ease. It’ll be a crying shame if Bristol City don’t get promoted to the Premier League in the near future, because their stadium is perfectly suited to host games of such importance.
With the players completing their warm-ups we found our seats, but not before an errant shot nearly decapitated us. It was many years ago I last sat or stood so close behind goal (probably at Weymouth as a teenager actually) so I was a bit out of practice and naive in my efforts to dodge incoming thunderbastards. Thankfully we sat down with our heads intact and settled in for the game.
There were a number of notable players in the England squad we were excited to see, but Reiss Nelson was top of my list. When I saw before the game that manager Aidy Boothroyd had selected Nelson in the starting eleven, I almost spat my dinner out in celebration. The Arsenal youngster, who has taken the Bundesliga by storm this season whilst on loan at Hoffenheim, was the player I was most looking forward to seeing and he did not disappoint.
Positioned on the left wing as part of a three-man attack, Nelson repeatedly teased and twisted his Polish opposition and regularly got the better of them. He combined well with left-back Jay Dasilva all evening, and the duo made the visitors pay with just 13 minutes played.
A clipped pass from Dasilva put Nelson clear of the defence and one-on-one with Polish keeper Kamil Grabara. As the English forward shaped his body to shoot, he used his first touch to deftly ghost past the stranded Grabara instead. Now close to the byline and running out of space, Nelson’s next touch was an expertly weighted pass to Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the centre of the goal, who had the easy task of tapping the ball home to give England the lead.
It was a wonderfully worked goal that pulled the Polish defence apart, but Caleb and I were off our feet in celebration for Nelson’s involvement alone. The poise and guile to take the ball around the outstretched goalkeeper was something special, and his ability to cut the ball back to the striker was sublime, a fabulous assist.
Five minutes later England almost made it 2-0 when a 25-yard half-volley from Everton defender Jonjoe Kenny nearly buried itself into the top corner. Grabara stretched every sinew in his body to tip Kenny’s shot over the bar and it has to be one of the most athletic saves I’ve ever witnessed in person. Caleb and I had such a perfect view of it too, I had to applaud the young Liverpool shotstopper.
Other notables moments in the game included Sebastian Szymanski’s 35-yard free-kick that brought Poland level. The 19 year-old beat Angus Gunn in the England goal with a perfectly struck effort, right into the top corner, and it sent the Polish fans wild behind their goal.
Standout players for England included Phil Foden, Man City’s midfield prodigy, who appeared to glide across the pitch with the ball glued to his foot. He made it seem so easy, so effortless, I now see why there is so much buzz surrounding the youngster. Ademola Lookman was another player who impressed, as the Everton winger consistently attacked his full back and was often a source of inspiration on the right flank. Finally, man-of-the-match Fikayo Tomori, a Chelsea loanee currently at Derby, was a pillar of strength in the heart of defence. The 21 year-old was regularly on hand to snuff out Poland’s dangerous counter attacks, and saved England from being on the wrong side of the scoreline more than once.
With the score at 1-1 and time running out, England continued to pile on the pressure but struggled to break down Poland’s stubborn defence. With the result still in the balance, the tension was just too much to bear for many the youngsters sat in our row, who had seemingly reached the limit of their attention spans (it was probably past their bedtime in fairness). Tired and irritable, they resorted to throwing paper aeroplanes onto the pitch (when they weren’t calling the Polish players cunts at least). I can’t really complain when tickets for teenagers were just £1, as the vast majority in attendance were impeccably behaved and created a great atmosphere. Plus, I have seen and heard a lot worse at football grounds.
When the final whistle blew I felt I had definitely gotten good value for money from the evening’s entertainment, even if England couldn’t get that winning goal. The anticipation before kickoff and the prospect of seeing some of the country’s brightest stars in the making was worth admission alone.