England's Ollie Watkins (No 9) celebrates with teammates after scoring against the Socceroos. Image by AP PHOTO
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Brave Socceroos succumb against England at Wembley

Ian Chadband October 14, 2023

The Socceroos have once again punched well above their weight on their landmark first visit to Wembley Stadium, but still eventually got knocked out by the England heavyweights’ extra sheen of quality in a 1-0 defeat.

Graham Arnold’s visitors were left with the unmistakable feeling they’d let a golden opportunity slip away in the pouring rain at England’s national stadium after their stirring performance which, at times on Friday night (Saturday AEDT), had thousands in green and gold dreaming it might end in a memorable triumph. 

But after a first half in which the visitors created the lion’s share of the best chances against England’s experimental-looking XI, with the biggest names like Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham left out, a 57th minute goal from Ollie Watkins sealed victory for the often disjointed home side in front of an 81,116 sell-out crowd.

“Undoubtedly, you could feel it was flat in the dressing room afterwards,” said captain Maty Ryan. “There was maybe something there for us, it was a missed opportunity there.”

 Socceroos manager Graham Arnold lost his voice after all the shouting he did against England. Image by EPA PHOTO 

His disappointment was echoed by Arnold, who had shouted himself so hoarse from the bench that he couldn’t even talk afterwards.

“He’s devastated at the fact we lost,” said his assistant René Meulensteen. “But you have to look at the benefits, the respect we’ve earned.

“You have to give those boys enormous credit for their bravery. It showed we can go toe to toe with all the big nations. We’re just trying to find that extra bit of quality to really put teams to the sword.” 

Against the team officially ranked fourth best in the game, Arnold’s 27th-ranked side, without a single player from Europe’s top-five leagues, delivered on their coach’s promise that they would run until they dropped.

All that was missing was the final touch as the Australian dream of emulating the “Shockeroos” of 2003, who beat David Beckham and co at Upton Park when Arnold was assistant manager, ended once a late soaring header by Connor Metcalfe from Martin Boyle’s corner agonisingly clipped the outside of the post.

It prompted the never-say-die Roos to keep attacking until the end on a night when they again enhanced their claims to be able to mix it on the biggest stages, just as they had at the Qatar World Cup.

In the driving rain under the famous arch, both sides, who wore black armbands and observed a minute’s silence for the victims of the Israeli-Palestine conflict before kick-off, made it a more competitive affair than so many recent somnolent friendlies at Wembley.

Early on, Conor Gallagher nearly put in Watkins for a quick tap-in for the home side at one end before the Socceroos reacted strongly, a deflected curler from Keanu Baccus requiring a fine save from Sam Johnstone and a terrific first-time volley from Mitch Duke flying just wide.

Kye Rowles toe-poked another shot over after disarray in the English defence at a corner, but the home side should have cashed in when Watkins’ pace was too much for the lumbering Aussie rearguard, and he beat the offside trap to round Maty Ryan only for his shot to trickle off the post.

England Australia match
 Stephanie Frappart became the first woman referee to officiate in a men’s international at Wembley. Image by AP PHOTO 

Inspired by a brilliant performance from Saudi-based Craig Goodwin, there was much to enjoy from the visitors with the excellent Ryan Strain nearly slotting home what looked sure to be the opening goal just before the break, thwarted only by a magnificent, despairing clearance by Lewis Dunk.

Billed as a friendly, Anglo-Australian sporting relations of course demanded there was no such thing.

France’s Stephanie Frappart, the first woman to referee a Wembley international, showed three yellow cards in the opening half – four altogether – and England debutant Levi Colwill and Baccus locked horns like stags at one point.

But the game lost its way amid a raft of changes after the goal, which came when Australia failed to cleat their lines and the ball fell to Jack Grealish, who cracked his left foot shot past Ryan with Watkins, practically on the line, alert to divert it into the net for the winner.