How England's unexpected year could tee up an unforgettable 2021

After attending England's final game of 2020 through The FA's partnership with the Black Collective of Media in Sport (BCOMS), Anish Dogra looks back at how an unprecedented year played out for the Three Lions and what the future might hold...

Tuesday 29 Dec 2020
England's players celebrate during the 4-0 win over Iceland that rounded off a year that panned out differently to expectations

For most of us, 2020 has been a year of uncertainty, peculiarity and disappointment.

On 22 January, England manager Gareth Southgate sat in a packed room at Wembley with Leon Mann and a group of aspiring young journalists from the Black Collective of Media in Sport (BCOMS). It was an exciting day for all as the theme of the meeting was primarily based on the European Championship finals, with the Three Lions due to kick off their campaign in the very same stadium in under six months' time.

Unfortunately, before March's warm-up games against Italy and Denmark had even arrived, circumstances dictated that people’s safety was far more important than all public events – football included.

Masks and hand sanitiser became standard, working from home was the new normal and life as we knew it had to come to a halt. EURO 2020 was postponed and football at every level was cancelled from March onwards. With domestic leagues to complete and other club tournaments to finish, there would be no possibility of the Three Lions reuniting in the near future.

Southgate with the BCOMS cohort in more optimistic times, at the start of 2020

Eventually, the longest season ever drew to a close; there were winners in every league across Europe and, domestically at least, everything was settled. Players had a break of sorts and were reunited again for the 2020-21 football season and, for the first time since a 4-0 win over Kosovo on 14 November 2019, Southgate was able to sit down with his coaches and pick his maiden England squad of the year.

Standing between England and victory in their opening game of the second instalment of the UEFA Nations League was a familiar foe: Iceland. Much of the pre-match narrative was based on the last meeting between these two sides which arguably was the Three Lions’ most disappointing result in their history – a 2-1 loss at EURO 2016 which saw England come crashing out of the tournament and led to then-manager Roy Hodgson resigning.

Fast-forward four years, pride had been restored by Southgate and his band of brilliant players. A fourth-placed finish in the 2018 FIFA World Cup and bronze medals at the inaugural Nations League campaign saw hope and expectation restored amongst the fans on the squad. Thankfully on this occasion there would be no repeat of 2016 as a tale of two injury-time penalties ensured three points for England in their opening match. Raheem Sterling converted his spot kick but the despairing Birkir Bjarnason sent his effort high and wide of Jordan Pickford’s goal. The game may not live long in the memory but it was a crucial victory for Southgate to ensure his side would begin the 2020-21 competition with three points.

There wouldn’t be much time to celebrate for England as they had a quick turnaround to the next game: Denmark in Copenhagen. If the Iceland game had little action to report, this had even less. That being said it would still be a positive day for a new England player, Conor Coady. The Wolverhampton Wanderers captain was given a starting berth by the manager and grasped his opportunity. 

Lining up centrally alongside Joe Gomez and Eric Dier in a back three, Coady would be the catalyst for a strong defensive performance. One of the very few advantages of no fans in the ground is the opportunity to hear and understand who are the most vocal players on the pitch and, similar to his role as club captain, the 27 year-old established himself superbly while shepherding his team-mates throughout the game, which ended goalless.    

As his players disbanded back to their clubs for a month, Southgate could feel relatively pleased with the two matches in September with successive clean sheets and four points from a possible six. With the players obtaining more minutes and feeling fresher from their club matches, the next set of internationals would prove to be far more exciting and, at the same time, far more disappointing.

A 3-0 friendly win against home nations rival Wales set the tone, with three players scoring their first international goals. Dominic Calvert-Lewin netted on his first appearance for the Three Lions and Coady followed up his impressive performance against Denmark with a goal on his home debut before Danny Ings added much-deserved gloss to the scoreline. 

Calvert-Lewin was one of four players to win their first caps in the game, with Bukayo Saka also starting the game. Reece James was brought off the bench to be given his first chance in the famous white shirt as well as some minutes for Harvey Barnes – the 40th player to make his debut during Southgate's reign.

The victory against Wales was crucial as the Three Lions’ next opponent would be a fearsome one: Belgium, the highest-ranked team in the world and the side who secured third place in the 2018 World Cup at the expense of Southgate’s men. A star-studded side boasting players such as Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku arrived at Wembley Stadium on a chilly Sunday evening with a 100 per cent winning return from their opening three Nations League games. That record, however, would be abolished in 90 minutes' time as goals from Marcus Rashford and Mason Mount cancelled out Lukaku's opener and ensured a memorable victory for England that saw the Three Lions leapfrog their opponents into first place.

It was a stunning victory for Southgate’s side, who exorcised the demons from 2018 and proved that they belong in the elite of international football. To come from a goal down against the best team in the world required immense determination, effort and quality and the ensuing victory was nothing more than England deserved.

The euphoria around the England camp would, however, be short-lived. A disheartening result against Denmark a few days later would bring the Three Lions crashing back down to earth as a first-half penalty from Christian Eriksen – which was preceded by a red card for Harry Maguire – saw the Three Lions suffer a rare home defeat. The misery would not end there as James, who'd arguably been the best player on the pitch, was also given his marching orders after the full-time whistle.

It was a disappointing end to what had been, up until then, a very positive international window. Despite the loss, England could look back on a relatively positive set of games; a dominant victory against Wales and morale-boosting win against Belgium would have given Southgate plenty of food for thought ahead of the final Nations League matches in November.

There were no new call-ups in the initial squad for the final set of internationals for the year, but there was still one debutant to come and arguably the most exciting one of the autumn period. Aged 17 years and 137 days, Jude Bellingham became the third-youngest full international in the Three Lions’ illustrious history having been drafted into the group ahead of a friendly against the Republic of Ireland. Goals from Maguire, Jadon Sancho and Calvert-Lewin secured another 3-0 win to begin the November window.

It was then onto what would be the decisive game of the autumn schedule: a daunting trip to Belgium. Southgate will have hoped for a repetition of October’s result and performance against the Red Devils, but those aspirations would prove futile as England succumbed to a 2-0 loss that ended hopes of reaching the Nations League's final-four tournament next October. 

Despite the result, the game in Leuven was one that saw Jack Grealish’s worth to England rise significantly. In for the injured Raheem Sterling, and playing in the same position, Grealish was the spark throughout the match, his driving, forceful runs drew a succession of fouls from Belgium who struggled to contain the Aston Villa captain. Grealish could come away from Belgium extremely pleased with another strong performance following excellent displays against Wales and the Ireland following his debut in September.

2020's schedule, if you can call it that given its condensed nature, ended as it began: against Iceland. While effectively a 'dead rubber' with the visitors to Wembley already confirmed to finish bottom of the group and consigned to relegation, the result brought a sense of normality as England dismantled their 10-man opponents in a ruthless manner akin to their performances in EURO 2020 qualifying, when they racked up 37 goals in eight games.

With nothing riding on the match, it would have been easy for England to produce a lethargic display but that was certainly not the case. England were full of verve, style, efficiency and quality as they produced their most complete performance of their Nations League campaign. With 78 per cent of the possession, 25 shots and eight corners, England were full value for their score in a match which saw another autumn debutant, Phil Foden, take the majority of the limelight.

First-half goals from childhood-friends-turned-international-colleagues Declan Rice and Mason Mount put England in control, before Mar Saevarsson was dismissed after the break and Foden struck twice in the last ten minutes. On his home debut the Manchester City man could not have played much better and with no more matches until next World Cup qualifying begins in March, the 20-year-old has given Gareth Southgate plenty to think about ahead of an exciting 2021.

As 2020 draws to an end, it has been 'a year to forget' – and yet, for so many reasons, one that has been truly unforgettable. Looking back on that afternoon in January, when the BCOMS cohort met the England manager so full of hope, anticipation and expectation, little did we know how differently the next eleven months would proceed.

In normal circumstances, in a world without the restrictions we've become all-too-accustomed to, 90,000 fans would have left Wembley after that win over Iceland last month with similar feelings to those the BCOMS cohort experienced at the very same stadium back in January. However long the pandemic lasts, there are 55million England fans at home hoping that 2021 will be an unforgettable year for all the right reasons.

By Anish Dogra Black Collective of Media in Sport