Well, that escalated quickly. This was an unsettling, deeply toxic night for Gareth Southgate and his England players, although mainly of course for Southgate himself, who will now find not just his feet, but his entire weary frame held to the fire of furious public opinion.
England came to Molineux looking to cap this weary, depleted Nations League silly season with a win, a sense of momentum regained. What they got was 90 minutes of pain, lactic acid, bruises and a sense, in the middle of it, the feeling of something beginning to drift out of sight.
As Southgate came on to the pitch at 90 minutes he was booed, angrily from all corners. There were shouts of genuine rage, of betrayal. This has, of course, been the backdrop to much of the last year. Southgate is England’s most successful manager of the modern age. Southgate is a decent, hard working block. Southgate has by any measure led England brilliantly.
But England’s fans don’t like Southgate, and even without a stick to beat him, Southgate has been beaten. Even without any record of defeat, only success, he has been labeled a failure. Even on a run of almost constant victory, goals, golden moments, England’s manager has been cast as a fraud and a killjoy.
Well, the audience got what it wanted here. Finally some meat, some substance, an actual crime with which to charge the guilty man. Defeat to Hungary could be shaken off. A 4-0 home thrashing by Hungary, during which England simply disintegrated, is something else. This was a genuinely woeful performance to cap an eleven day odyssey that now reads: played four, lost two, drawn two, scored one (Kane, pen).
All teams, all sporting entities are a shared act of will, of spirit, of wanting this thing to work. And in the second half, England simply evaporated, a team with no resistance, no coherent sense of itself. It was almost comic at times. As Hungary’s third goal was skimmed into the bottom corner of the England net by Zsolt Nagy, it was met by a delirious roar from the away fans high in the far stand. And from the rest of Molineux by boos, abuse, incoherent rage, and you thought, well at least it couldn’t get any worse.
It turns out: yes, it could. Two minutes later England were down to 10 men, John Stones sent off for an accidental stray elbow to the face. Surely, now, we’re bottoming out. But no! With six minutes to go, 3-0 down, Southgate took off Bukayo Saka and sent on – oh no, Gareth, really, no – Harry Maguire, to another swell of exasperated fury.
And Southgate will, of course, receive a great deal of abuse and much punditry evisceration in the next few days. This was already happening, and England had lost only once in the last 18 months. There will be talk that he should go now, that he deserves no patience, no margin, no sympathy, that the first straw is the last straw.
But one oddity here at the end was that even as Southgate was booed, the players were applauded off the pitch. The same players who haven’t looked like they wanted to be involved in these games, and have played like they weren’t. It is, of course, the job of the manager to deal with this. But who among those players performed to an acceptable level here? Reece James? Marc Guehi? Anyone else? Kane gave it a go and never stopped running but seemed so fogged with weariness at times he might as well have spent the second half in a nightcap and a pair of pyjamas. Kalvin Phillips was way below his best. Jude Bellingham looked like what he is, an 18 year old. Conor Gallagher scuffled vaguely. Nobody in a white shirt had any stardust, any sense of vigour.
Stones had a terrible night, bullied and ragged about the place by the fantastically poised Adam Szalai, who wheeled himself around the pitch like a Roman siege tower bouncing off the white shirts, finding passes.
Szalai has great feet and a hunger for contact, a man with a shadow cult-hero career in the Premier League that never quite happened somehow. How, you wondered, has he never played for Everton? The mild irony here is that Southgate did what he has been asked.
England played a 4-3-3 with only one holding midfielder, with exciting young players on the pitch. They started well enough too, then simply fell to pieces as Hungary took the lead thanks to some terrible defending.
With 23 minutes gone there were already howls and cries and roars, outrage, as England passed the ball around in front of a packed Hungarian midfield.
Does this help? Is it deserved? But England have also found a new kind of problem in these games, weariness on the ball, an old inherent sense of playing through some boggy substance, midfielders unable to turn with the ball, always playing the wrong way.
There were changes at half time. Southgate switched to a 3-5-2. England got worse. At times they seemed spectral, a team in the process of disappearing. And perhaps there was another lesson here.
If you ask for something enough times: you might just get it.