It was a night when violence erupted in the Wembley stands and England felt a rare form of tension run through a disjointed performance. It was impossible to get away from the terrible scenes inside the area that housed the Hungary fans, with the abiding image being that of a Metropolitan police officer repeatedly striking one of them with a baton and getting quite a few punches back.
The trouble had flared in the third minute and it rumbled on for about seven, Hungary supporters rushing towards what looked like a minimal police presence. The coming together was sickening. The Met said they entered the stand to arrest a fan for a “racially aggravated public order offence following comments made towards a steward”.
Hungary’s problem with the racist behaviour of an element of their support has been well documented; most recently, they directed monkey taunts at some of England’s black players during the World Cup qualifier between the nations in Budapest last month.
Fifa punished them with a one-game stadium ban. It followed the bad behaviour of Hungary fans at Euro 2020, which had led Uefa to order them to play two matches in their competitions behind closed doors.
What happened here set a malevolent tone and England could not lift the spectacle. Did it affect them? Whatever the explanation, it was a strange display from Gareth Southgate’s team. The manager had dispensed with his double midfield bolt, asking Phil Foden and Mason Mount to dovetail in a 4-3-3 formation ahead of Declan Rice. It was what so many England followers had wanted to see and it promised excitement, speed and creativity.
And yet it delivered little. England laboured for the majority of the evening and it said everything that Southgate finished it with his team back in a 3-4-3 system, with Jordan Henderson having been sent on to partner Rice. Hooked off from the action were Jack Grealish, who shook his head in frustration, and then Raheem Sterling and the captain, Harry Kane.
Grealish had been central to the fightback after the concession of a 24th-minute penalty to Roland Sallai, with John Stones scoring the equaliser before the interval. But Sterling could get little going and it was a game in which Kane was horribly off the pace – in both thought and movement.
With Albania losing at home to Poland, the draw meant England effectively wrapped up qualification to the finals in Qatar next year because they will surely get the three extra points they need in San Marino on the final matchday. Their goal difference would almost certainly be too much for Poland in the worst case scenario of them losing to Albania at Wembley next month.
But this was not a night when there was too much to celebrate and it could even have been worse at the very end. Bukayo Saka, on as substitute, was robbed by Zsolt Nagy and another substitute, Filip Holender, had the time and space to measure a shot. He curled high.
All eyes were drawn to the visiting enclosure at the outset, with the scenes utterly shocking. The local authorities had said they had beefed up their security but it did not appear that way inside the ground.The luminous bibs of order did not number more than 20 or so and, as the fists flew – savagely – they seemed to be pushed back down the narrow entrance from which they had come. There was the sight of some Hungary supporters punching the air in triumph.
The evening had begun with a smattering of boos for the Hungary anthem and then more of the same from some of the away fans when England’s players took the knee. A banner was unfurled in the away end that depicted a kneeling player with a line through it. England were slow to get going and they conceded when Luke Shaw leapt into a high kicked clearance after initially taking a heavy touch. Shaw did clear but, as he did so, he endangered Loic Nego, who had thrown his head at the ball. Shaw was booked. Sallai converted from the spot. It was only the fifth goal that England had conceded in 17 matches this year and the Hungary fans lit a flare in celebration, sending sickly green smoke across the pitch.
Up to that point, Kane had been crowded out at the far post after Shaw had taken a flick from Grealish and crossed while the captain planted a header wide after outmuscling Adam Lang at a corner. It was physical, it was bad-tempered and England needed to get a grip. Led by Grealish, they worked their way back into contention. He flitted from his starting position on the left, always happy to put his shins in the line of fire, to take risks, and he was on the right when he won the free-kick that led to the equaliser.
Foden whipped it in, Tyrone Mings missed an attempted flick and the ball came off Rice for Stones to stretch and score. England might have pinched the lead on 45 minutes only for Peter Gulacsi to beat away a Sterling header but the second-half push did not materialise. Stones headed just wide following a corner, Kane almost teed up Sterling and Southgate was left with plenty to ponder.