Don't tell Ollie Watkins that England's 5-0 win over San Marino was pointless - The Warm-Up
England strolled to a 5-0 win over San Marino in a match which had people trotting out the argument that these kinds of World Cup qualifiers shouldn't even be happening. But The Warm-Up knows what Ollie Watkins would think about that. And the San Marino keeper for that matter. Meanwhile, John McGinn scored a worldie, and World Cup protests spread to Germany.
England's striker Ollie Watkins (C) celebrates scoring their fifth goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification
The Warm-Up must start today’s column by acknowledging that absolutely nothing can be taken from a home victory against the lowest-ranked team in football. There are not five things to be learned. No one pressed their claim for a place in the Euros squad. No sporting knowledge was acquired during a facile encounter in which England really should have scored many more than the five goals they plundered. Even an exceptional cameo from Jude Bellingham - and it was exceptional - has to be placed in the proper context.
An empty Wembley witnessed an almost entirely empty match. A box-ticking exercise before moving onto the real business ahead. It was, as Lee Dixon put it on commentary for ITV, “almost like playing against 11 mannequins” for Gareth Southgate’s side. By the end of it, even Jesse Lingard was radiating Diego Maradona vibes:
As soon as England found themselves 3-0 up after little more than half an hour, through goals from James Ward-Prowse, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and captain Raheem Sterling, the debate inevitably shifted to whether these games should take place at all; whether San Marino and other minnows of their ilk should have to play pre-qualifiers to even have the right to join the rest of Europe’s nations in the first stage of World Cup qualifying; whether, effectively, some European nations are more equal than others.
And then something quite beautiful happened.
On a night shorn of any sporting consequence whatsoever, great human stories emerged in their place. Primarily, the astonishing display from San Marino keeper, Elia Benedettini.
Benedettini, who plays for Cesena in Serie C, conjured up a succession of saves to keep it to 5-0, denying Lingard, Calvert-Lewin and brilliantly tipping a Ward-Prowse free-kick against the post. It is probably fair to say he had the greatest night of his career and had San Marino failed in pre-qualifying, he would have been denied it.
As much as it sometimes seems like football is ruled by the elites, for the elites, overwhelmingly dominated by clubs who are trying to set up a new European Super League to even further concentrate their power and position, fundamentally it isn’t. It’s a game which reaches deep into every strata of society and offers up the hope that on any given day, anyone can be the hero. The glory game.
It wasn’t just San Marino players who were enjoying career highlights, either. On England’s side, the best story of the night was a debut goal for Ollie Watkins, who a little less than four years ago was playing for Exeter City in League Two. His charming post-match interview was more entertaining than much of the previous 90 minutes.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s what I dreamt about all day in the hotel – just to get a chance and enjoy it,” Watkins said on ITV. “I’m speechless to be honest. It’s been a good journey, I feel honoured to come out here and put on the shirt and play with the players I’m playing with. You couldn’t write it, I’m over the moon to be honest.”
Even if this match was the definition of ambient football, a match to be passively consumed, looking up every time England scored before returning your gaze to whatever it was you were doing; even if it was utterly devoid of any suspense; it still meant something to some of these players. And whose right is it to say that the San Marino keeper, and indeed Ollie Watkins, should have been denied it.
Boothroyd under pressure after U21 flop
Callum Hudson Odoi from England lies on the ground during the UEFA Under-21 Championship 2021 Group Stage match between England and Switzerland
Image credit: Getty Images
It wasn’t quite as easy for England Under-21s though, who kicked off their European U21 Championship finals campaign (yes finals, with the group stage taking place now and the knockouts coming in the summer) with a defeat to Switzerland which has already led to some questions about manager Aidy Boothroyd.
Boothroyd failed to lead his team out of the group stage in 2019 and with a team including such talents as Callum Hudson-Odoi, Emile Smith Rowe and Max Aarons you don’t really get to fail. After seeing his side have one shot on target, Boothroyd said:
“I don't think we created enough in the final third really and it is as simple as that. We are not out of it yet, two more games and we can still get out of the group and that is what we will aim to do.
“The word is cautious. We played a safe game today and if you are going to win you can't play safe. This is the biggest test and we have to go through a bit of adversity to come through the other side. Am I worried about it? No I am not because the team that goes out against Portugal will be a very attacking team and we will see if we can improve. We have still got a chance.”
The catalyst for this mini-eruption of dissent has been a report in the Guardian which outlined how as many as 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded to the tiny country with no real history of football heritage and a summer so hot that the football calendar would have to be restructured to accommodate it – an outcome that The Warm-Up is simply going to describe here as ‘surprising’.
It is of course encouraging, and a little unexpected, that footballers are trying to use the massive platforms they have to advocate for a cause. But while it remains a generic statement of support for ‘human rights’ there is unlikely to be any serious pressure on Qatar or FIFA ahead of a World Cup which simply shouldn’t be taking place.
IN OTHER NEWS
Scotland were faced with a tricky prospect in their first World Cup qualifier as they played at home to Austria. Losing 2-1 with six minutes left, John McGinn simply did this:
IN THE CHANNELS
Apparently, Barcelona star Ousmane Dembele is a huge Leeds United fan, according to Patrick Bamford.
“After the Fulham game he was like ‘I need your shirt please'”, Bamford said of Leeds’ French goalkeeper Ilan Meslier. “I said ‘yeah, it’s fine. Who for?’ He said ‘Ah, Dembele’. I said ‘wait, who?’. He said ‘the guy from Barcelona’.
“I was like ‘what, he wants my shirt?’ and he was like ‘yeah, he wants yours and Kalvin’s shirts because he’s a massive fan of Leeds and watches every game’.
“I was like ‘you serious?’ and I said ‘okay, but you’ve got to get me his shirt then in return’, so he FaceTimed me at midnight the other day and showed me this Barcelona shirt that says ‘to my bro Bamford, from Dembele'”.
The clowns in charge of football have managed to engineer an international week with no matches on the Friday. Not even in the U21 Euros. However, Saturday is a little busier and we do have Serbia v Portugal covered for you with live text commentary.
Andi Thomas would have bagged a hat-trick against San Marino. Instead he'll be filing his Monday Warm-Up as usual.