There is less than a week to go until England’s opening match against Croatia, with the pre-tournament buzz increasing at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium last week.
Consecutive 1-0 wins over Austria and Romania weren’t the most convincing performances from The Three Lions, yet it was clear that Gareth Southgate was managing his squad after a gruelling domestic season.
Still, the chance to see Premier League stars such as Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was hugely welcomed by supporters, many of whom had been unable to visit the Riverside for over a year.
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While Covid-19 restrictions meant the Riverside’s capacity was capped at 25 per cent for the two matches, it was still refreshing to see fans arriving at the stadium.
There was a sense of excitement as supporters took their seats, applauded the players warming-up and initiated chants from the stands.
Against Romania, there was a moment in the first half when a group of supporters chanted ‘Declan, give us a wave’ to substitute Declan Rice. The West Ham midfielder duly obliged, much to the fans’ satisfaction.
After a year of playing games behind closed doors, these are some of the little things that make a big difference. Fixtures in eerie, empty stadiums aren’t much fun.
At both matches, there was a distasteful moment before kick-off when supporters booed players taking the knee, though on both occasions the majority of fans responded with applause to try and drown it out.
It seemed like Rockliffe was an ideal venue for England to step up preparations for this summer’s tournament, with the team’s three group games all set to be played at Wembley.
“I think the players have enjoyed it,” said Southgate ahead of the friendly fixtures.
“In the time I was manager here we had the training facility but they were still building the hotel.
“To be able to walk across from there to training and minimise the travel in these Covid times - that’s been important, and with the weather as it’s been we’ve been able to eat outside.”
Before these games, it had been 18 years since England’s senior men’s side last played at the Riverside.
Their return was embraced by many. Hopefully it was the start of a successful summer.