How Middlesbrough will welcome England friendlies - after national fixtures at Leeds, Sunderland, Leicester and Southampton
When England reached the World Cup semi-final in 2018, we saw images of supporters celebrating from across the country.
Following Harry Maguire’s header against Sweden in Samara, the BBC captured scenes in Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham and Croydon – crowds erupting in unison, beer flying everywhere, fans making the most of a summer’s day in July. Gareth Southgate’s team brought the country together.
While the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions may prevent such euphoric moments this time around, it’s hoped the Three Lions can once again give us something to shout about following a torrid 15 months.
England are set to make their final preparations for the delayed Euro 2020 tournament this week, with warm-up games against Austria (Wednesday, June 2) and Romania (Sunday, June 6) set to be played at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium.
It will be refreshing to see the men’s national team visit the North East for the first time since 2016, when Roy Hodgson’s side beat Australia at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland.
A crowd of 46,549 attended the 2-1 win over the Socceroos, as goals from teenage prospect Marcus Rashford and Wayne Rooney created a collective buzz on Wearside.
While attendances will be capped at 25 per cent, in line with government guidelines, for the upcoming games in Middlesbrough, the appetite in the region for international football remains.
In 2015, when Southgate was the England Under-21s boss, 30,178 were present at the Riverside as the country’s youth team came from behind to beat Germany. A similar-sized crowd attended a friendly between England Women and Brazil at the same venue in 2019
Since the Australia match at Sunderland, England’s senior men's team have played at Leeds’ Elland Road, Leicester’s King Power Stadium and St Mary’s in Southampton.
Before that, though, there was a danger of the national side becoming London’s team, as the Three Lions didn’t play a home fixture away from Wembley between 2007 and 2016.
It’s therefore a shame that more fans in the North East won’t be able to attend the upcoming fixtures due to Covid-19 restrictions, especially with the senior side playing their first match at the Riverside since 2003 – a 2-1 win over Slovakia in a Euro 2004 qualifier.
Of course there is an element of prestige playing at the national stadium, yet there should also be an opportunity for fans across the country to watch the national side, rather than continuous games at Wembley - which have at times become stale.
Boro’s impressive facilities at Rockliffe will aid England’s preparations for the tournament, while the Riverside will host it’s biggest crowd for over a year.
While the stadium welcomed back 1,000 supporters for a Championship game against Bournemouth in September, which was part of a test event, many fans on Teesside haven’t been able to attend games since February 2020.
The lack of crowds has left league games feeling soulless and insignificant, so it will be uplifting to experience a live audience and a more upbeat atmosphere.
Hopefully the returning fans can give Southgate’s side a pre-tournament boost ahead of the main event later this month.
The upcoming fixtures will certainly be welcomed by those able to attend.