In yet another international week where the England senior team made a mockery of their status as the world’s fourth best team by failing to turn up in the second half in Montenegro, what a pleasure it was to watch an exciting and successful English side.
Stuart Pearce’s Under 21s have won their last nine matches, scoring 22 goals without conceding, and have lost just one since the summer of 2011. These young Lions play with a joie de vivre not seen for many years in the senior ranks.
They aren’t scared of keeping the ball, they aren’t frightened of taking opponents on, particularly the livewire Raheem Sterling, they look more technically gifted, and they gobble up chances like a fat kid gobbles crisps. Three against Romania last Thursday, three different scorers, four here against Austria and four more different names on the scoresheet.
Fast forward 24 hours and the senior side are lumbering another few metres down the Road to Rio, just about earning a point in Montenegro. They look destined for the play-offs, the B road, and there’s no guarantees they’ll be seeded and avoid the superpowers like Spain, France or Portugal.
Never mind, there’s something to cling on to, although the Under 21s were being matched by an enterprising Austrian team until Swiss referee Adrien Jaccottet offered a helping help by sending off two visiting players. After that the floodgates opened and four-nil was a let-off for the opposition.
Mr Hallgarth had been out in San Marino for the weekend, watching England stuff eight past what is the equivalent of a Sunday League team (we do seem to be able to manage that), but with this Monday night match being at a ground neither of us had visited, he was willing to put back his recovery sleep by a few hours.
So it was to the seaside and Brighton, somewhere I hadn’t been to in a good 10 years. I’ve watched and listened to Quadrophenia a good few times in the meantime, so I’m sure that makes up for it.
Their new AMEX Stadium is simply immaculate and the opportunity to watch the next generation of England stars drew a crowd of over 20,000 - mainly families too, which was good to see. Tickets were an affordable £10 each and only a couple of sections of the stadium were closed.
Someone designing the ground had a Eureka moment and decided to position a train station right next to it which, I don’t about you, strikes me as a very good idea for all new football grounds!
Pearce made six changes from the side that brushed aside Romania at Wycombe’s Adams Park four days earlier, which robbed us of the chance to watch the wonderful Wilfried Zaha, who was apparently undergoing root canal surgery.
The new-look team was perhaps a bit unsure of themselves, because Austria dominated the first half-hour. They had some players with amazing Alpine names like Simon Piesinger, Raphael Holzhauser and Lukas Spendlhofer and they were half decent as well.
Holzhauser, the captain, forced Jason Steele into a good save and Danny Rose cleared a Florian Neuhold shot off the line. A team of loan rangers, Rose was one of 12 players in the England squad currently borrowed by someone else.
The game changed on 40 minutes - goalkeeper Richard Strebinger came out to close down an England attack and slid out of his penalty area with the ball. Adjudged a little harshly to have prevented a goalscoring opportunity, he was shown a straight red by the over-officious Jaccottet.
Jonjo Shelvey, a player I’ve never rated but is growing on me after this performance, made things worse by smashing the free-kick past replacement goalkeeper Cristoph Riegler.
Austria were in for a long second 45 and so it proved when Patrick Farkas handballed. Already booked, he too was heading for an early shower. Chelsea’s Josh McEachran made no mistake from the penalty.
The remainder of the match was all-England, which was a bit annoying because they were shooting away from us. More joy followed as Marvin Sordell, one of a number of substitutes, converted a cross from Connor Wickham.
There was a lot of buzz around Wickham and a number of big clubs keen on him at one point, but it’s never really happened for him since he moved to Sunderland. However, he showed some of that potential late on when bursting past tired defenders, rounding Riegler and finishing nicely.
Having avoided some of the stronger sides in the group stages, England look a promising bet for this summer’s European Championships in Israel. What a wonderful achievement a win would be for English football and the future.
Next Match: The NextGen Series finals in Como, Italy this Easter weekend