The international debut of Tyrone Mings won’t be forgotten in a hurry. England’s newest player put in an accomplished performance at centre back and had the courage to make a stand when it was required.
The UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying decimation of Bulgaria was the first match Mings had played in an England shirt at any level. Saying nothing, playing through racist abuse from the stands, might have been the path of least resistance.
That’s not Tyrone Mings. In the first half in Sofia he questioned the assistant referee about the abuse, sparking a powerful, united response from the England team and management.Embed from Getty Images
The match was stopped twice in the first half and a large group of young men who’d presumably identify themselves as ‘ultras’ – faces covered, Nazi salutes prominent – marched out of the stadium.
The apparent level of organisation suggests that there was nothing isolated or unpredictable about the abuse directed towards England’s black players.
The despicable and embarrassing comments of Bulgaria coach Krasimir Balakov before and after the match – played, let’s not forget, in a stadium partially closed because of the very same behaviour – confirm what happened as an aggravated offence.
Balakov scoffed when the threat of further racist abuse was raised. Bulgaria don’t have a racism problem, he said. England do.
Later, when a qualifying match had been twice interrupted and the very real threat of an abandonment narrowly avoided, he said he hadn’t heard any racism and suggested that the half time intervention of his captain, Ivelin Popov, was unrelated.
UEFA would do well to take Balakov’s denial into account when considering the full circumstances of what occurred in Sofia.
The presence of a prominent group who were clearly involved. The fact that Bulgaria were already under sanction for previous transgressions. The substitute who flew under the radar after leaving the bench to challenge England’s players during one of the stoppages.Embed from Getty Images
And Balakov, the complicit head coach whose behaviour gave lie to any notion that the team shouldn’t be punished for the crimes of the supporters.
If UEFA ever want to be seen to take racism seriously, now is the time. Only expulsion will suffice.
Mings, Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and the rest of the England unit conducted themselves superbly throughout. They played the game and got the job done. They also stood up, together, and said no.
What took place inside the white lines at the Vasil Levski National Stadium took England to within a point of qualification for EURO 2020 and 6-0 didn’t flatter them.
Kane and Callum Wilson hit the post with chances they should have buried and Bulgaria goalkeeper Plamen Iliev made a number of decent saves when goals looked more likely.
Bulgaria were no opposition for an England side who got everything right. Southgate reverted to his tried and tested formation and dropped Michael Keane, giving Mings his chance.
The manager also made a couple of big decisions that were somewhat surprising and went unheralded because of the ease with which England won.
Given England’s lack of midfield balance against Czech Republic it was expected that Ross Barkley would return to the starting eleven. Marcus Rashford’s start was more unexpected and Kieran Trippier keeping his place over Trent Alexander-Arnold was another not many will have seen coming.
England enjoyed 72% of the possession and struck 13 shots on target against Bulgaria. It was, as the old cliché goes, like a training session.
It was even referred to in commentary. But these matches rarely visually resemble practice; it’s just a turn of phrase. This one, though, really was like a training session.
It’s difficult to analyse individual performances in matches like this but there were certainly some very good ones.
Mings showed everything Aston Villa supporters love about him except, well, defending. Maybe next time we’ll get to see some of that too, but a clean sheet on debut isn’t to be sniffed at.
The new centre back was a crucial component in a more fluid England display, moving the ball around well and striding forward confidently when the opportunity arose.
Along with a quiet but assured performance from Harry Winks and the tireless wing work of Ben Chilwell, Mings’ impact in possession helped England go.Embed from Getty Images
Captain Kane was excellent. Roaming around like he owned the place, he contributed a trio of stellar assists before finally scoring a goal of his own, the sixth, with five minutes remaining.
Raheem Sterling scored twice; both he and Kane now have eight goals to their names in six qualifiers. Barkley scored a tap-in and a smart header to make it 3-0 after Rashford’s fizzing opener.
England’s goals were – with the arguable exceptions of the first and last – easy. Well worked, certainly, but easy nevertheless.
The overall experience of Sofia was anything but.
Mings should be immensely proud of both his performance and the impressive way he made his voice heard when it really mattered.
The players rallied around their abused team-mates in a manner that would have been admirable if it weren’t instinctive and obviously the right thing to do.
The reason we laughed at the lazy, knee-jerk insults that underpinned so much of the criticism of Southgate after the loss to the Czech Republic was that Southgate and his England teams have come to represent progressiveness and diversity in a country in dire need of both.
England supporters should take great pride in the way their team dealt with the situation and the dignity with which they spoke in the aftermath.
That matters. Just ask the former England striker Ian Wright, who took an almost celebratory tone in the ITV studio at half time simply because something was being done.Embed from Getty Images
This is the England that’s willing to fight for equality, inclusion and decency. Taking their eye off the ball in Prague didn’t undo one iota of Southgate’s work on and off the pitch.
Later, Wright had a bone to pick with Greg Clarke, the chairman of the Football Association, who found himself in the unusual position of being interviewed on a live match broadcast.
He was forthright and fully condemned the actions of the Bulgarian supporters but Wright was understandably upset by Clarke’s “pandering” to UEFA, whose action over racism doesn’t reflect Clarke’s claim that the issue is taken seriously by the governing body.
Clarke clearly wants something to be done and the reality of the murky world of suits in football is that flattery and diplomacy tend to grease those wheels. Television wasn’t the place to exercise them.
Equally this isn’t – on this occasion at least – an FA problem or a Clarke problem. It’s a Bulgaria problem, and, by extension, a UEFA problem. It’s time for proper action.