Richard Sutcliffe was at Wem­b­ley to see Eng­land’s first UEFA Na­tions League match and in­stantly de­clares him­self a fan de­spite the Three Lions’ loss.

Yorkshire Post - Sports Monday - - FRONT PAGE -

Richard Sutcliffe is an in­stant con­vert to UEFA’s Na­tions League idea

IN RE­CENT years, the top flight of cricket’s County Cham­pi­onship has held the man­tle of sport’s most un­for­giv­ing league com­pe­ti­tion.

With a quar­ter of the teams com­pet­ing in Divi­sion One each sum­mer des­tined to be rel­e­gated the fi­nal few weeks in­evitably bring a scram­ble for safety ev­ery bit as des­per­ate as the one for the lifeboats af­ter the cap­tain has or­dered, ‘Aban­don ship!’

Now, how­ever, there is a new con­tender for sheer sport­ing bru­tal­ity and it goes by the name of the UEFA Na­tions League.

Just 90 min­utes into the new com­pe­ti­tion and Eng­land are al­ready deep in the rel­e­ga­tion mire.

De­feat to Spain means the Three Lions are bot­tom of League A Group Four and if that is still the case come Novem­ber 18 de­mo­tion to the sec­ond tier of the Na­tions League will follow.

Few would bet against such a fate for a side who must ne­go­ti­ate not only a daunt­ing re­turn clash with Spain in Seville, but also a dou­ble-header against Croa­tia, who just a cou­ple of months ago so ruth­lessly dashed Eng­land’s hopes of their sec­ond World Cup fi­nal ap­pear­ance.

Like that semi-fi­nal loss in Rus­sia, Gareth South­gate’s side took the lead at Wem­b­ley on Satur­day night.

But, just like that July night in the Luzh­niki Sta­dium when Luka Mo­dric and com­pany broke English hearts, there could be few com­plaints at how a slicker out­fit had hit back to claim vic­tory in this first com­pet­i­tive meet­ing be­tween these two old foes since Euro ‘96.

Sure, ref­eree Danny Makke­lie in­curred the wrath of ev­ery English­man, woman and child still in­side Wem­b­ley by rul­ing out Danny Wel­beck’s late, late ‘goal’ for a foul on David De Gea.

Harry Kane went so far as to ac­cuse the Dutch of­fi­cial of “bot­tling it” in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of Eng­land’s first com­pet­i­tive home de­feat since Croa­tia won 3-2 in the Wem­b­ley rain al­most 11 years – and 24 games – ago.

He may have had a point. But, even al­low­ing for this late drama, few in the 81,392 crowd could deny a much more vi­brant vis­it­ing side the three points.

Along with Spain the big win­ners on the night were UEFA. Hav­ing brought in the Na­tions League to in­tro­duce a more com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment to in­ter­na­tional football, the gov­ern­ing body’s leap into the un­known was re­warded with a hugely en­ter­tain­ing con­test.

With points at stake there was an edge to pro­ceed­ings that kept the crowd in­ter­ested. Had this been a friendly the fi­nal halfhour would have brought the usual in­ter­minable sub­sti­tu­tions, a game played at al­most walk­ing pace and Mex­i­can waves rolling round the sta­dium.

In­stead we had a gen­uine con­test that brought a sus­tained level of in­ten­sity that is rarely seen at Wem­b­ley when Eng­land are play­ing, and the fans re­sponded ac­cord­ingly.

There were cer­tainly far more seats oc­cu­pied when the night’s big talk­ing point came along than would usu­ally have been the case at a sta­dium where sup­port­ers make an early dash for the ex­its to beat the queues at Wem­b­ley Park tube sta­tion.

Per­haps the big­gest plus, how­ever, from not only this clash but also how the other Na­tions League open­ing round of fix­tures have panned out is that the en­ter­tain­ment on of­fer has been way above that usu­ally seen in qual­i­fiers at this time of year.

Most of those, and in par­tic­u­lar the ones pit­ting ill­matched op­po­si­tion against each other, have been bor­ingly pre­dictable and UEFA were right in be­liev­ing some­thing had to be done.

These are very early days and there can be no doubt­ing that this for­mat lends pro­ceed­ings a das­tardly cut-throat air rarely seen in sport. But the signs are pos­i­tive that the Na­tions League can be the breath of fresh air for which the game at this level has been cry­ing out.

“I knew this three-month pe­riod would be an ex­cep­tional chal­lenge,” said South­gate, whose side travel to Croa­tia next. “But it will tell us a lot about ex­actly where we stand and I think that is good for us.

“If we were just play­ing qual­i­fiers now against a lower stan­dard op­po­si­tion on the back of how the sum­mer went we might have a per­cep­tion of where we are which is false. I think af­ter the next few months we will be very clear.”

AP­PEAL­ING IN VAIN: Eng­land man­ager Gareth South­gate pleads, with­out re­sult, for Danny Wel­beck’s late dis­al­lowed ‘goal’ to stand.

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