CONNOR WICKHAM was unable to prevent England Under-21s suffering a losing start to the European Championships last night after a controversial 1-0 defeat to Italy.
The Sunderland hitman played 82 minutes for the Three Lions and tucked the ball into the net early in the second half in Tel Aviv, only for it to be correctly ruled out for offside.
But the big moment of debate arrived a minute later when West Brom’s Craig Dawson thought he had broken the deadlock, only for the referee to spot a push by Steven Caulker in the build-up.
Italy then punished Stuart Pearce’s side with 11 minutes to go when Lorenzo Insigne converted a superb free-kick to end England’s run of nine straight victories.
Coach Pearce would not accept any excuses for England’s defeat to Italy, saying the best team won.
The Young Lions saw their record nine-match winning streak come to an abrupt end, with Pearce saying: “The performance was very poor.
“the movement of their front line caused a problem and we got caught between when to press and when to drop off.
“Once Dawson ‘scored’, we thought we got our noses in front, which would have given us a touch more confidence, but overall it was a poor performance from us, which is unlike us – we’ve been playing very well.
“But we didn’t have things our own way against a decent Italian side and we’ll have to learn by it to go into the game on Saturday.”
The defeat leaves England bottom of Group A after matchday one, with Israel held to a last-gasp 2-2 draw by Norway.
Pearce added: “The way I look at it now, we’re probably in a three-team group, us Norway and Israel, and they’ve probably got the march on us because of the point they’ve both got.
“I think probably we’ll have to win both games, without a doubt, but that’s tournament football, it’s unforgiving.”
Pearce can welcome back ex-Sunderland loan star Danny Rose and Thomas Ince after they completed one-match bans last night, while Wilfried Zaha and Henri Lansbury could be available after ankle and groin injuries kept them on the bench last night, respectively.
Sunderland-born skipper Jordan Henderson felt the disallowed goal was key.
Craig Dawson looked to have nodded the Young Lions ahead, the England players ran off in celebration, the announcer gave the goal and even put Dawson’s face on the scoreboard – only for referee Antony Gautier to chalk the header off to mass confusion.
Liverpool star Henderson admitted he found the decision “baffling”.
The ex-Sunderland midfielder said: “I was a little bit disappointed our goal wasn’t allowed, and I think it might have been a different game.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I still don’t know why it was disallowed. You’d probably have to ask the referee.
“I wasn’t very happy with the decision.
“I thought the referee was pointing at the kick-off spot, so everyone was celebrating. It was a good few minutes until they took a free-kick and everyone was a little bit baffled to be honest, but that’s football.”
Henderson still believes progress is achievable.
“I think we could have kept the ball a little bit better,” he added.
“They did press us quite well high up the pitch so it was hard to get on them but we’ve got to pick ourselves up now.
“We’ve got another two games to go so we need to be ready for that.
“We can’t get too disheartened, we’ve got to pick ourselves up and fight back come the next match.
“There are two games left and we want to win both of them to get out of the group. It doesn’t really matter how you do it. We’ll be ready come the next game.”
ENGLAND U21: Butland, Clyne, Dawson, Caulker, Robinson, Henderson, Lowe, Redmond, Shelvey (McEachran 75), Sordell (Chalobah 65), Wickham (Delfouneso 82). Subs not used: Steele, Smith, Wisdom, Lees, Zaha, Lansbury, Rudd. Booked: Lowe, Clyne