UEFA U21s England 1 Sweden 0 (21st June 2015)
Maybe I’m in a minority, but I can’t hear the name of the Czech city of Olomouc without wanting to fit it into “Olomouc! Olomouc! Will you do the Fandango?”, so it would have been easy to start this piece with puns based around whether England would be able to paint a Bohemian rhapsody over the Sigma Olomouc’s Andrův Stadium pitch on this day.
Obviously though, you can’t paint a rhapsody, so that makes little sense, and Olomouc is deep into the Czech region of Moravia rather than Bohemia anyway. Then again, something which opens with a little promise, but promptly falls apart under serious scrutiny is pretty apt for any England team in a tournament, so it does seem reasonable after all.
With the Prague to Olomouc distance being comparable to London to Sheffield, and a slow 2.5 hour train ride away, I didn’t expect any of the stag party hordes to nip over for the game, but I was expecting to see a fair few England fans about, even if the U21s understandably doesn’t have thousands travelling like a full tournament does.
Instead I found a town that seemed nearly empty. In some ways it was quite nice to walk round Olomouc’s attractive old town without the crowds that turn parts of Prague’s old town into a scrum, but I generally like having tourists around. It makes a place more lively, and Olomouc is certainly a town that deserves more tourists.
It would probably have liked a few more England fans too, as would I. It was clearly going to be a smaller scale version of Kiev in 2012 all over again, with the Swedes heavily outnumbering the English. The Swedes had claimed a secondary square just off the main square as their base camp, decked out in yellow and blue.
With no obvious English equivalent, I picked a traditional restaurant for lunch, overlooking the sights of the main square. It would have been a little more idyllic if they weren’t also setting up some kind of stage in the square. Banging of tubular steel frames and flatbed truck cranes swinging concrete blocks into position don’t really add to the ambience. One of the guys organising the building work suffered from a limp, and I couldn’t work out whether it didn’t really inspire confidence in his health & safety expertise, or whether his “listen, guys, just trust me on this…” advice might be heeded more than usual.
Handily the game was only a short walk from the centre, and it didn’t take long to hear singing voices, Swedish ones unsurprisingly, and the place had much more of a real match feel than at Eden the night before, which had a distinct whiff of “friendly” about it.
I’d already had a glimpse of the stadium from the top of a tower just north of the main square. It was unmanned, with an honesty box for donating the 20Kc entrance fee. With no change possible, and with no other options on my person beyond a 2Kc coin and notes bigger than 100Kc, I’d taken the decision that 2Kc would have to do, and the empty clunk that greeted its dropping into the box suggested my donation was more honest than most.
The only parts of the ground visible were the large semicircular north stand, open to the elements, with the Moravian countryside beyond, and the unusual floodlights, looking like they been designed by someone cutting an empty toilet roll down the middle and glueing the halves to an upright pencil.
The north stand was where I’d be watching the game from. As is my habit, I took the long steep walk to the very back to take a few photos. It almost felt higher than climbing the tower, and offered a fine panoramic view of the ground and town. My own ticket was lower down, partly because I’d rather be a little nearer the pitch, and also because for some reason there were very few tickets available. The official site said the game was sold out, despite tickets clearly being for sale on the day, and the eventual crowd being over 1000 below capacity (and there looked more empty seats than that).
The other end was nearly as tall, but half of its height was due to three tiers of executive boxes at the back. The two side stands were much lower, perhaps holding about 3000 each, making it all in all a good modern rebuild, although it possibly wouldn’t be ideal if it rained.
Thankfully it was a glorious sunny day in Olomouc for this match, and mercifully not to warm, or I’d have baked in the open north stand, facing the sun for this early evening kick off.
Maybe the long summer evenings were a tad too relaxing, as while it felt more like a proper match with a healthy crowd in, there wasn’t the buzz of tension you might expect. The Swedish contingent massed behind the north stand goal sung the odd uncomplimentary song about Harry Kane, and a lone England fan to my left lived up to the Sun-reading white-van-man stereotype with a few witless shouts across the pitch, but it was all quite low-key, although not unpleasantly so.
Less good was the fact that this “sunning yourself on a lazy Sunday afternoon” vibe had got through to both sets of players, who never exactly looked like they thought the game was a matter of life or death. For Sweden, surprise winners over Italy in the opening match of the group, a draw suited them fine. For England, who needed the win, it was less understandable.
To the credit of this England team, missing half a team of players who’d genuinely be considered England’s best U21 players due to injury or not being selected, they had learned to be comfortable on the ball at last. Route One tactics had been binned, and they made good use of the excellent Andrův Stadium pitch, rather than the air above it for once.
Unfortunately, while England have got the hang of the possession part of such a style of play, they’ve not really figured out how to create chances playing like that. The banner in the Swedish end saying “Harry who?” could have been answered with “he’s the guy failing to get on the end of another over-hit England through ball/cross”.
It was looking like it was going to have to be pigeon-holed into the “nice day out. but…” category until Jesse Lingard’s late intervention. Lingard, with a name that’d look more at home on a Swedish shirt, and whose only first team appearances this season were 14 games on loan in Derby County’s end of season promotion collapse, struck a volley from a half cleared ball that flew into the far corner of the net. 1-0 England, with just 6 minutes left.
White van man to my left, ungracious even in victory, jeered some more, but it was a crowd mainly in good spirits that applauded the players, and began the half hour walk back to Olomouc main station for the last trains of the night back to Prague. For England fans, and those sensible enough to have reserved a seat for the way back, only the lack of a/c of the train would lower the spirits. For Sweden fans, and the large number having to stand for the duration of the 2:45 min train ride back to Prague, it probably wouldn’t be the best part of their trip.