Switzerland 0-0 England (5-6 PENS); Pickford penalty heroics secure the Three Lions the effectively meaningless Nations League third place

Switzerland 0-0 England (5-6 PENS); Pickford penalty heroics secure the Three Lions the effectively meaningless Nations League third place

It took some penalty shootout heroics from England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, scoring one spot kick before then saving another, to earn the Three Lions victory in the UEFA Nations League third-place playoff.

In truth, it was an accomplishment – and a match in general – that few cared about, myself included in that crowd.

It’s something I’ve never understood the desire for in international football – the meaningless third-place playoff. Teams are already spent, they’ve already endured the ignominy of being knocked out of the respective tournament, any yet are somehow expected to rally back around to care for a match that means so incredibly little to anyone.

I understand the format’s existence in just one footballing competition – the Olympic Games. That is because the third-place playoff takes the form of a bronze medal match. This is important for countries as the medals table is ultimately how nations are separated and ranked on performance, and therefore competing over the bronze can matter to teams (even though a number of sports with knockout tournaments actually just share the bronze between those knocked out in the semi-finals, and football so easily also could too).

Yet, despite this, FIFA and UEFA both seem to still have a burning love for the third-place match, leading to the drab spectacle that was on display in Portugal early on Sunday afternoon.

That feeling of pointless football was for all to see in Guimaraes, as the England and Switzerland camps lined up ahead of a match few even cared was going on. Just as easily as staging it, both sides could have instead shrugged off their shortcomings in the semi-finals and been on flights back home to enjoy the start of a summer break.

Instead, by decree of the UEFA higher-ups, they were forced to play out a slow, meaningless pre-amble to the actual final – played with all the disinterest and fatigue that you’d have anticipated in a third-place playoff that didn’t need to exist.

The match itself, a real low-key affair, saw England boss the chances, with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling both hitting the woodwork. Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer pulled off a superb save to deny Dele Alli.

Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson thought he’d won the game for England late into the second half when he turned the ball home, only to see his goal chalked off by VAR – with the video assistant referee ruling him to have fouled Manuel Akanji in the build up of the goal.

Ending goalless at the full time whistle, and failing to find any form of breakthrough in extra time, the game dragged its way through to penalties, where Pickford stepped up to perform – much like he did in last summer’s World Cup Round of 16 match against Colombia.

Harry Maguire, Ross Barkley, Jadon Sancho and Sterling all hit the mark for England, before Pickford himself stepped up to score England’s fifth penalty (the fact alone that the goalkeeper was taking traditionally significant, and potentially deciding, penalty number five probably tells all it needs to about the third-place playoff).

At that stage, the scores remained level heading into sudden death. Switzerland had been on target with all five of their strikes so far, seeing Steven Zuber, Granit Xhaka, Akanji, Kevin Mbabu and Fabian Schar all convert from the penalty spot.

Eric Dier then converted England’s sixth spot kick to put the Three Lions in the driving seat.

To respond, up stepped Swiss forward Josip Drmic but the Borussia Monchengladbach man saw his effort saved by Pickford, giving victory and third place in the Nations League to Gareth Southgate’s England.

It remains an utterly meaningless game, and one that everyone could have likely done without playing, but I suppose at least for the annuls of history Southgate’s tenure as England manager has another minor success on its record (even if the final, overall tournament win still eludes him so far).

John Barnes is right in saying that to tackle racism in football, you must fix it in wider society

John Barnes is right in saying that to tackle racism in football, you must fix it in wider society

Racism shouldn’t exist in football. No discrimination should. That much goes without saying, and yet as seen when England faced Montenegro in Podgorica on Monday, it still very much does even at the highest levels of the game, and is the result of a much wider societal issue.

I took genuine time in debating whether or not to write this article. In truth, I actually didn’t want to at first.

However, racism has once again reared it’s ugly head and become such a major issue this week in football that it feels wrong to ignore. And ignoring it would be part of the problem, too.

Then former England international John Barnes came out and gave his thoughts on the issue, and spoke with huge amounts of sense and perspective given to the problem. His statements weren’t reactionary from the Montenegro game – as I hope this article too is not – and instead tried to refocus the attention that match caused back onto tackling the wider problem; racism not just in football, but in wider society – because, ultimately, that is where it all stems from.

Now, I know I am hardly the authority on racism in football. I’m a white guy with virtually no conceivable footballing ability – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all look at and consider the potential solutions to combating this inherent problem that spoils what is a wonderful game.

If we look away from the problem, or are too scared to approach it head-on and debate and consider genuine solutions, then we do nothing to help improve the current situation.

Football should be for everyone, and that extends not just to racism but all kinds of discrimination. It has no place in the modern game – and we should all be seeking to eradicate it.

This is where I think Barnes has it right. The racism that was on display in Podgorica, and has been on display at grounds around the world (including in England this season) does not suddenly manifest in people once they walk through those turnstiles.

Barnes told BBC Sport: “It can’t be tolerated but we’ve got it the wrong way around. You can’t get rid of it in football before you get rid of it in society.

“Try to figure out a way to stop people wanting to boo because someone is black. Let’s look at what’s going on in society and try to tackle it.”

And that’s where FIFA, as well as the governing bodies, national associations and clubs themselves, come into the matter.

Fines simply don’t work. We all understand this – it’s a fact that’s been proven time and time again by the fact racism is still very much alive in many stadiums around the continent.

You can fine an association or a club, but at the end of the day that money doesn’t come out of the wallets of the racists that brought about the fine, and so its simply not going to make them change their ways.

However, the other extreme end of the spectrum I continually see being banded around is this idea of an ultimate punishment; expulsion from the tournament their qualifying for. In Montenegro’s case, that would be EURO 2020.

Personally (and I am aware that this is likely an unpopular opinion) I think that this is the wrong approach. While yes, it does send a strong message to the racists, it also hugely penalises the players and innocent fans of those countries.

I don’t believe every person in Montenegro is a racist. I don’t believe every person in that stadium in Podgorica was a racist. Nor do I believe that the majority of those players on that pitch representing Montenegro are racist.

Yet, they would also lose out with expulsion. Badly.

They would see all of their efforts, in all of their qualifying games, scrubbed from the records because of the actions of a minority – a repugnant, vocal minority, yes – but still a minority.

There, instead, needs to be a middle ground. And there is one, that is already possible with the current legislation in place: the stadium ban.

It’s what Raheem Sterling called for following the England game on Monday, and I do believe it to be the most logical and impactful way of punishing countries and clubs whose fans display any kind of discriminatory behaviour.

The reason for that is simple. It still retains a powerful message, that if your supporters are incapable of being respectful and accepting of all people equally within football, no matter race, sexuality or anything else, well then simply you won’t be allowed any supporters present. Games can even be played at neutral venues, or back in the country of the opposition side instead.

It forces that country to make changes beyond just football. If you want supporters back in your grounds, then you need to prove clearly that steps – and more crucially, actual progress – is being made off the pitch. Tackle discrimination, then you can return to watching your team play.

If they show no signs of improving, then they’ll have no chance of getting back into their grounds to watch their team. If that means for 10 years, the fans are banned from watching their side, then so be it, but you would almost certainly start to see change – and at a societal level too, as Barnes is calling for.

At the end of the day, football fans want to watch football. The clue is in the name.

If a generation grows up not being able to watch their national team beyond on the TV screens because of racism, knowing that to get it back they cannot be racist, then there is a real reason for them to change.

It’s not the fastest solution, but its the one with the most long-term impact.

It also doesn’t hurt the players, and I do believe that to be another key issue to be considered when calling for the expulsion of a team.

Majority, if not all, of those players on the Montenegrin side against England on Monday were likely not racists. Racism in football these days, at the higher levels, largely (though definitely not exclusively) comes from the terraces rather than the pitch.

There are still players that do use disgusting discriminatory language and gestures, yes, but they are becoming fewer and fewer.

That is because there are real, firm punishments for players caught doing so. Lengthy bans can come for such incidents, and they should be made even tougher. Reporting of these incidents is becoming easier and more common too, and that needs to continue to improve.

With player-to-player abuse, it’s easier to tackle because you can narrow down and target the guilty individual. That means that the rest of the players on that team shouldn’t suffer, if they have partaken in any kind of racial abuse themselves; only the guilty player or players.

Going back to team expulsion, that’s why I don’t agree with it as the approach going forwards. Instead, let’s weed out any racist players, and instead let those players left – who we know are not racist – still compete for their country, a source of national pride for any athlete.

If unacceptable fan behaviour means that they can only do so in empty stadiums, or away from home soil, then so be it. However, they should still have the right to pull on their national jersey all the same.

It simply comes down to perspective. It’s easy as English fans to vilify Montenegro after the blatant racism of some of their fans, and through impassioned anger call for extreme action, but it’s a matter of perspective. Innocent Montenegrin fans and players that are not racist – and there are many of those that likely exist – would rightly feel hard done by.

Chelsea fans had a racism scandal earlier this season. I don’t think the rest of Chelsea supporters would feel particularly kindly towards the idea of a few people’s actions getting them expelled from the Premier League. It won’t even cross the topic of conversation, and yet it is at its heart the exact same situation. But, being an English club side in the top-flight, it comes with a very different inherent perspective when people look at the situation.

There isn’t a magic fix to racism in football. Nor an easy solution to be found, as much as I wish that there was, and there will sadly always be a handful of idiots that think it is okay to use discriminatory language, gestures or behaviour towards others.

However, there are certainly ways that the situation can be improved, and punishments that can be brought in to offer a real deterrent, and look to help force change, whilst still taking into reasonable consideration those who are innocent to the problem.

Yet, at the end of the day, with all that set aside, and as John Barnes said, football’s problem with racism cannot be fixed before it is tackled in wider society.

As I said earlier in this article, racism doesn’t manifest itself at the turnstile. It’s already in the fans before they enter.

So, if we are serious about putting an end to the problem, then we need to address the problem far beyond the football stadium.

Montenegro 1-5 England; Three Lions survive early scare to mount an impressive attacking display

Montenegro 1-5 England; Three Lions survive early scare to mount an impressive attacking display

England looked to have been struck by a sucker punch in Podgorica when Marko Vesovic fired Montenegro ahead with their first shot, but Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions recovered to roar back to an impressive 5-1 win.

It had looked like a routine qualifying game for England in the opening ten minutes, as they knocked the ball around confidently, relatively unchallenged by Montenegro.

However, 17 minutes into the contest, Montenegro pounced on some poor defensive positioning from England, which saw Fatos Beqiraj get the better of Michael Keane and play in Vesovic.

The Legia Warsaw wing back still had plenty to do, and did get a lucky bounce of the ball, but it was a fantastic finish past a diving Jordan Pickford to give the hosts a surprise lead.

England were stunned following the goal, having come so against the run of play.

Luckily, within 12 minutes, Keane atoned for the defensive mistakes in the lead up to the Montenegrin goal and headed home his first England goal from a brilliant Ross Barkley delivery. It was exactly what England needed to knock the confidence the home side was rapidly developing.

Yet, they still didn’t look comfortable. England looked truly shaky at the back, getting picked apart by the Montenegro attack, who briefly turned into Barcelona as they carved open Southgate’s defence with one-touch, tiki-taka style play.

England were dangerous going forward – as is usually the case in these kinds of qualifying games – but for once Montenegro also looked likely to score each time they attacked. There was a real attacking contest on display for fans of both sides in Podgorica, even if the defending left something to be desired.

For England’s sake, boy wonder Callum Hudson-Odoi – who was making his first start for England – managed to work some space and fire a shot towards goal that Barkley was on hand to tap into the net.

It was a much needed goal to put England back in the ascendancy, and Hudson-Odoi deserved his role in the game. Perhaps at fault with his position for the Montenegrin opener, largely just through youthful naivety, he was full of eagerness and energy going forwards. Even if things weren’t coming off, he was still getting his head down and looking to attack at every opportunity.

Once England had the lead, you expected Montenegro to fall back into the usual trap in these qualifying games – sit back and defend desperately, looking for that once chance.

They didn’t.

Huge respect should be given to the home side, because they weren’t giving up this game. Perhaps still feeling hard done by from the bad penalty call late on against them in their last match against Bulgaria, they kept pushing forward and cutting England open at the back.

As such, it was a massive relief to see Barkley – who was quite possibly the luckiest player to ever wear an England shirt – be in the right place at the right time to smash home Raheem Sterling’s pull back early in the second half.

It gave England the breathing room, even if it made massively clear a glaring flaw with Southgate’s side in Podgorica.

They were in essence a glass cannon. Going forwards, England look absolutely unplayable. They’re full of youth, talent and desire and look like one of the best sides in Europe right now.

However, at the back, they were found out time and time again by Montenegro. This is an opponent who haven’t actually won many recent games at home, certainly not against sides of the quality of England, and yet every time they drove forward there looked like a real chance of them scoring. England need to buckle down at the back, getting rid of some genuinely concerning mistakes and complacency that was present in this match.

As time ran out on the clock, England’s better stamina let them run rings around the Montenegrin defence, with Sterling the architect driving the play.

First, the Manchester City winger drove into the box from a delightful through ball before slotting the ball across for Harry Kane to tap in possibly the easiest international goal he’ll ever score, before a similarly brilliant pass let Sterling drive home a fifth low past the goalkeeper.

It was an attacking masterclass against an opponent that fought hard but simply ran out of steam.

Some unsightly frustrations emerged out of the England late on that Southgate will want to get out of his players, with first Jordan Henderson picking up a foolish yellow card for getting into a confrontation and minor handbags with the Montenegrin players – who by then had turned from competitors to wind-up merchants.

Rose then collected a last second yellow when he utterly unnecessarily cleaned out one of Montenegro’s midfield. Late on, 5-1 up and in an entirely harmless position of the field, it was absolutely ridiculous and could cost him later on in the qualifying games with suspension.

However, following the game, there were a number of allegations of racial abuse from the Montenegrin supporters towards Rose, and England’s other black players – making the frustrated kick out (while still a stupid action) a lot more understandable. It also demonstrated the huge character of Sterling and Hudson-Odoi, who suffered similar abuse throughout the game too, and kept their heads.

It was ultimately a blemish on the end of a great attacking display, while the defensive frailties offered a few little murmurs of concern for Southgate and his coaching staff ahead of the next international break.

However, negatives aside, England still walk away from their two EURO 2020 qualifiers with a perfect record, two wins, six points and having scored 10 goals – with only one in response.

It still remains an exciting team, and England fans can feel hopeful looking towards those finals come next summer, with qualification already looking in almost no doubt.

England 5-0 Czech Republic; Sterling stars as Three Lions carve open Czech defence

England 5-0 Czech Republic; Sterling stars as Three Lions carve open Czech defence

England ran out confident 5-0 winners in their opening EURO 2020 qualifying match against Czech Republic, with Raheem Sterling stealing the show with a sublime hat-trick.

The Manchester City winger opened the scoring for England with a poacher’s finish, before adding two more clinical finishes to silence any potential critics. For a player previously criticised for lacking goals in a national team shirt, he made no mistake with his chances in this one.

He fully deserved his plaudits as he walked off the Wembley pitch shortly after to be rested for the next match against Montenegro.

Harry Kane had added a second for England just before half-time from the spot after Portuguese referee Artur Manuel Soares Dias awarded the home side a penalty.

It was an arguably soft decision, with Sterling simply being sandwiched between two Czech defenders and possibly having already lost control of the ball, but either way Kane made no mistake with the finish.

A poor defensive error from Bristol City centre-back Tomas Kalas finished the scoring when he fumbled the ball into the back of his own net. It had bounced up at him from a save by his goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka, but it did seem as if the Czech defender had time to adjust his feet.

Gareth Southgate used the match to blood in some young faces into the England set-up, with Borussia Dortmund starlet Jadon Sancho getting a first start and Callum Hudson-Odoi getting a run-out later on.

Declan Rice also made his first international appearance for England since making the switch of allegiance from the Republic of Ireland.

England looked encouraging, full of a good balance of youthful energy and necessary experience. In what could have easily been a banana skin of an opening fixture (the Czech Republic have some real EURO pedigree behind them) the Three Lions got exactly the result that was needed.

The clean sheet was an added bonus, though in fairness England had little defensive work to do throughout much of the match. So much so that there did appear to be some few moments of complacency at the start of the second half, but the England defence rode the pressure well.

In truth, England’s group is one that shouldn’t cause any real problems. Especially not at Wembley.

There may be no out-and-out ‘whipping boy’ in the group, but none of Bulgaria, Montenegro or Kosovo should provide any more of a threat than Czech Republic did.

With a brilliant start now in the bag, England just need to push on and keep this form up. There will be a raucous reception for them in Podgorica on Monday, as Montenegro look to psych them out of the match, but on paper at least it should be another confident display and win.