England Under-21s sealed their spot at next summer’s Euro Finals with a game to spare, after a 1-0 victory over Kazakhstan in Aktobe.
The Three Lions will head to Poland in July to compete in their sixth successive finals as an early goal from Demarai Gray sealed the win in a red-hot atmosphere at a lively Central Stadium.
Boss Aidy Boothroyd, in charge of the U21s whilst Gareth Southgate is on interim duty with the senior team, saw his side dominate possession and create a number of chances throughout with debutant goalkeeper Freddie Woodman left relatively untroubled at the other end.
Kazakhstan 0-1 England
UEFA European U21 Championship
Group 9 Qualifier
Thursday 6 October 2016
Central Stadium, Aktobe
But it was Gray’s first goal for the U21s which proved pivotal with England now returning home to play their final qualifier with Bosnia & Herzegovina next Tuesday knowing their spot in the finals is secure.
With a sell-out crowd in good voice, an early goal was always going to settle English nerves and that was just what they got after six minutes.
James Ward-Prowse did well to win the ball in midfield to send Nathan Redmond clear on the right with a slide rule pass, and his Southampton team-mate's centre was perfect for Gray to sweep home from seven yards.
England continued on the front foot and came close to a second when Lewis Baker flashed a shot narrowly wide of the post when a Ward-Prowse corner had only been half-cleared.
Ward-Prowse was then denied himself just after the half-hour mark when Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s deep cross was knocked back into the area by Brendan Galloway. The England captain lined up a shot towards the top corner but a heroic header from Altynbak Saparov diverted it over the bar.
With just a single goal to show for their enterprise, the danger was always there though and it took a great block from Galloway to deny Alisher Suley an equaliser after Yan Vorogovskiy pulled a cross back from the left ten minutes before the break.
Kazakhstan began the second half with similar gusto, but it was still the Three Lions posing the greater threat with Gray being just a whisker away from doubling the lead after a neat run into the box led to a shot just wide.
An in-swinging cross from debutant Mason Holgate almost caught out Pavlov Stanislav, with the Kazakh keeper desperately back-pedalling before the Everton man’s effort clipped the bar and went over.
Stanislav then kept his side in the game, as Gray slipped a pass into Loftus-Cheek inside the area, whose attempted chip was blocked well by the keeper.
Ward-Prowse had another decent chance to seal England’s victory late on but shot off target.
It mattered not, however, and there was even time for Bristol City’s Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham to come off the bench for his U21s debut and force Stanislav into another save with a glancing header.
Tickets for the final qualifier, against Bosnia & Herzegovina at the Banks's Stadium in Walsall on Tuesday 11 October, cost just £1 and are available via the Walsall FC ticket office or by calling 01922 651414/416.
England Under-21s: 1 Freddie Woodman (Newcastle United); 2 Mason Holgate (Everton), 5 Calum Chambers (Middlesbrough, loan from Arsenal), 6 Rob Holding (Arsenal), 3 Brendan Galloway (West Bromwich Albion, loan from Everton); 8 James Ward-Prowse (capt; Southampton), 4 Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea), 7 Lewis Baker (Vitesse Arnhem, loan from Chelsea); 11 Nathan Redmond (Southampton), 10 Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea), 9 Demarai Gray (Leicester City).
Substitutes: 17 Duncan Watmore (Sunderland) for Loftus-Cheek 73, 16 Tammy Abraham (Bristol City, loan from Chelsea) for Gray 85.
Substitutes not used: 12 Jack Stephens (Southampton), 13 Christian Walton (Brighton & Hove Albion), 14 Isaac Hayden (Newcastle United), 15 John Swift (Reading), 18 Josh Onomah (Tottenham Hotspur).
Goal: Gray 6
Head coach: Aidy Boothroyd
Kazakhstan: 18 Pavlov Stanislav, 2 Rafkat Aslan, 3 Timur Rudosselskiy, 4 Grigoriy Sartakov, 5 Altynbak Saparov, 6 Miras Tuliyev, 7 Maxim Fedin, 10 Alisher Suley, 11 Yerkebulan Tunggyshbayev, 13 Berik Shaikhov, 23 Yan Vorogovskiy.
Substitutes: 9 Didar Zhalmukan for Suley 46, 17 Abat Aimbetov for Fedin 74, 19 Kuanysh Kalmuratov for Vorogovskiy 85.
Substitutes not used: 1 Dmitry Kolbuntsov, 8 Alexandr Sokolenko, 16 Karam Sultanov, 21 Ruslan Valiullin.
Cautions: Sartakov, Suley, Zhalmukan, Vorogovskiy.
Match highlights: Kazakhstan 0-1 England