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ROB DRAPER: England looked laboured, dysfunctional and in need of a break in Hungary

When England played behind closed doors in Croatia in 2018, the stadium was so quiet that all you could hear was the full range of Jordan Henderson’s impressively-robust vocabulary, mainly directed at the referee and the opposition coach. 

These days behind closed doors means something a little different. 

Here you could hardly hear yourself think, for all the excited screams of the schoolchildren and insufferable vuvuzelas, Hungary having found an obscure UEFA loophole that allows children in; 30,000 of them apparently, with 5,000 escorts.

So it was that the volume was louder than it might have been if the full 67,215 were here. 

England fell to a surprise defeat in the Nations League away in Budapest against Hungary

England fell to a surprise defeat in the Nations League away in Budapest against Hungary

A loophole in UEFA's regulation allowed 30,000 in despite a stadium ban, many of them kids

A loophole in UEFA's regulation allowed 30,000 in despite a stadium ban, many of them kids

A loophole in UEFA’s regulation allowed 30,000 in despite a stadium ban, many of them kids

Just a reminder that this stadium ban was for homophobic and racist chanting during Euro 2020. Inbetween that they picked up another stadium ban for the horrendous racist abuse England players suffered here last year, so they’ve become quite adept at working through the minutiae of the regulation.

So it was that England were jeered on their warm up – quite good naturedly – before anthems were observed impeccably. 

And then England took the knee, to express their solidarity as team-mates, because of the racial abuse they suffer around the world. And then came the distinct sound of boos and jeers, Nothing like the din when England played here in September against a full adult crowd. But a show of disdain nonetheless. 

It wasn’t universal. And it may have been from adult escorts rather than the kids themselves. But there it was. 

Give me the child and I will show you the adult. In the land of Viktor Orban, it seems there are some very happy to embrace that maxim when it comes to disdain for anti-racism.

In Hungary, there is irritation that when England come to town, that they bring with them an evangelical sermon on anti-racism, when, to their eyes, English football, with its pitch invasions and own racism issues, has enough problems of its own to deal with before it can ascend the pulput. 

So there is the sense that some are booing what they perceive as the arrogance of England to preaching down to them. Others presumably take issue with the fact that symbol of taking the knee was appropriated by the Marxist group in the USA, though it was originally used by NFL player Colin Kaepernick, a peaceful, prayerful response to ongoing racial injustice and is universally used.

And yet how to explain that to Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham who were abused here last year? 

England's players were jeered and booed by a pocket of those attending for taking the knee

England's players were jeered and booed by a pocket of those attending for taking the knee

England’s players were jeered and booed by a pocket of those attending for taking the knee

‘#Equal Game – Respect’ read the huge UEFA banner in the stands. That’s pretty much the problem with football and its gestures: great at hashtags, struggling to do anything that would bring any discernible change when players can be racially abused with near impunity.

After that, it was difficult to appreciate the sheer joy of the majority of the crowd, though that should not realty be the case when it was a minority who booed. 

They had plenty to cheer, this being one of England’s end-of-season performances, which suggests the players need to be in Mauritius or Dubai.

As can be imagined, the din when Dominik Szoboszlai converted the 64th minute penalty was extraordinary. That high-pitched cheering really does pierce the eardrums. 

Reece James, who had just come on for the disappointing Trent Alexander-Arnold, found himself the wrong side of Zsolt Nagy and clumsily challenged. 

The award was soft but no softer than Sterling’s against Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final. It was chastening but only what England deserved. As is often the case, their 3-4-3 formation looked stretched and bereft of shape.

James Justin had a difficult debut, with Hungary’s best player Loic Nego repeatedly getting outside, delivering superb crosses which his forwards declined to finish. 

It was a difficult Three Lions debut for James Justin, who was forced off injured at half-time

It was a difficult Three Lions debut for James Justin, who was forced off injured at half-time

It was a difficult Three Lions debut for James Justin, who was forced off injured at half-time

Justin had to go off at half-time having picked up an injury in the first half, which had initially looked like it would finish his debut there and then. Jarrod Bowen did better, a wayward free kick aside, at least running at players with gusto and causing panic.

And yet the focus shouldn’t really be on the debutants but the coach, Gareth Southgate. 

There was little coherent about England here. Whatever they have been under Southgate, they have generally been structured and a team with a plan. Here, the wide open spaces on the flanks were inviting areas to attack for Hungary, as wing backs Alexander-Arnold and James operated on the front foot. Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice found themselves outnumbered in midfield and never got a grip of the game. 

This was England’s first defeat inside 90 minutes – allowing us the step aside the defeat to Italy on penalties – since November 2020, when they lost to Belgium, a run of 23 games.

England have been pretty good in that spell, if a little cautious at times in the Euro 2020 final. But here they were lucky it wasn’t worse, when Jordan Pickford dived to their rescue to deny Laszlo Kleinheisler when caught on the counter on 84 minutes. 

The ball fell to Andras Schafer, the goal beckoned six yards out, but incredibly he skewed it over.

Dominik Szoboszlai netted the only goal of the Nations League contest, scoring a penalty

Dominik Szoboszlai netted the only goal of the Nations League contest, scoring a penalty

Dominik Szoboszlai netted the only goal of the Nations League contest, scoring a penalty

It was a worrying display for England boss Gareth Southgate five months from the World Cup

It was a worrying display for England boss Gareth Southgate five months from the World Cup

It was a worrying display for England boss Gareth Southgate five months from the World Cup

Hungary looked energised and sharp while England were laboured and dysfunctional, their shots on target rarely testing Peter Gulasci in the Hungarian goal. 

Conor Coady glanced a header wide, Harry Kane opted for a soft shot on goal rather than squaring for Jack Grealish who would surely have scored. But there was no concerted rally, no laying siege to the Hungarian goal. 

They looked like a team that need a break. It isn’t a good look going into games against Germany and Italy next week. It’s an even worse one when you consider the World Cup is five months away. 

Suffice to say, the schoolkids enjoyed it.

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