Gareth Southgate’s men stood firm in the face of sickening racism as England thrashed Bulgaria on a night of shame in Sofia.
The Three Lions took a giant stride towards Euro 2020 as they bounced back from Friday’s shock loss in the Czech Republic, yet this will match will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Nazi salutes and racist chanting marred Monday’s thumping 6-0 win in Bulgaria, where Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane goals complemented braces from Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling as the players showed great dignity in finishing the match.
Few would have blamed Southgate’s side for walking off the field at the Vasil Levski National Stadium, where play was twice halted in the first half due to racism from home fans.
A stadium announcement in the 28th minute – the first step of the UEFA protocol explained to England’s players in depth at the start of the international break – warned fans that the Group A encounter may be abandoned if they did not immediately halt racist behaviour.
Tyrone Mings, making his senior debut, appeared to be subject of some of the abuse and it looked like the second step would be invoked just before half-time, only for play to resume after a brief break.
A group of Bulgarian fans left the ground and captain Ivelin Popov spoke to some other supporters during a half-time break few would have blamed England for refusing to return from.
The PA news agency understands that various officials met at half-time and decided that the teams would walk off if racism reared its head again in the second period.
Sterling and Kane struck as the match was completed, but all the post-match talk will be about Bulgaria and the need for a fierce, firm reaction from UEFA.
For a while, this was a football match.
Rashford – one of five changes from the defeat in Prague – showed confidence and skill that belied his poor Manchester United form, collecting the ball on the left and shimmying superbly into space before unleashing a fizzing strike from an acute angle.
The play was as confident as the finish, but Bulgaria goalkeeper Plamen Iliev could have done better.
Popov forced a decent save out of Jordan Pickford as the Bulgarians tried to find a quick leveller, but the Three Lions would put their foot down and grab a second in the 20th minute.
Sterling’s quick one-two got him behind the hosts’ back line, with the forward hitting a driven cross-shot that Barkley tapped in at the far post.
That was far from the last England goal, but it was the moment that this match ceased to be about the football.
Shortly after England chants of “You racists b*******, you know what you are”, skipper Kane went to speak to referee Ivan Bebek. The technical area was a hub of activity, with a radio message sent through to the stadium announcer as Southgate spoke to his players.
A statement was read in Bulgarian and English urging the immediate end of racist behaviour, leaving onlookers numb when play resumed and Barkley grabbed a second of the night from Kane’s left-footed cross.
Play continued after the 32nd minute goal – for a while.
Southgate spoke to the referee and an in-depth discussion was held by the touchline, while a group of supporters clad in black in the home end left the stadium. A flag with the banner ‘Lauta Army’ went around that time.
Mings was given a supportive tap on the shoulder as play surprisingly resumed after several minutes rather than play being suspended, with England notching a fourth before half-time as Kane swept across for Sterling to score in first-half stoppage time.
An emotional-looking member of the Football Association backroom set-up walked around the pitch beating the England crest to applause from the away fans at half-time, when Bulgaria captain Popov spoke to some fans.
Few would have blamed the Three Lions for staying in the dressing room, yet they emerged to boos and pushed on with unrelenting hunger.
Sterling and Rashford were the biggest threats as Petar Zanev had an attempt for the stuttering Bulgarians.
Kane saw a close-range attempt denied and Sterling grabbed England’s fifth in the 69th minute, with chants soon following of “Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem f***** Sterling”.
Southgate hugged the forward when replacing him and Kane hit the post before finding the net five minutes from time.
Callum Wilson also struck the woodwork – the final act of a depressing night.