You get a feel for when a storm is rolling in. In the hours before kick-off on trips to Eastern Europe, it is usually easy to gauge in which direction the night will head.
All the metaphorical sirens were flashing in Podgorica, back in March 2019. It’s only a small capital city but it felt like every officer in Montenegro had been drafted in and kitted out in combat gear to police the European Championship qualifier.
There was no physical violence but racism was everywhere and football was never going to top the agenda that evening. Danny Rose, England’s left back, was pelted with cigarette lighters and abused. Raheem Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi, scorers in a 5-1 win, were subjected to monkey chants.
Raheem Sterling was racially abused during England’s victory over Hungary on Thursday
On to Sofia, seven months later. Sometimes you arrive at stadiums and, perhaps naively, think it won’t be as bad as some of the horror stories you have heard about past shameful incidents — Bulgaria, regrettably, was even worse.
Stickers of swastikas were on some seats close to the press box, locals argued with the travelling media alleging that our questioning of the national team head coach had in some way led to Tyrone Mings, on his debut, Marcus Rashford and Sterling being abused by Bulgarian Ultras.
The sinister edge was not apparent in Budapest. This beautiful, vibrant city was welcoming and the fabulous Puskas Arena looked every inch the kind of stadium that you could see hosting a Champions League final.
But it should never, ever have that honour. Not after the eruption that, again, took the narrative away from football.
For 45 minutes, all seemed to be going well, save for the booing and screaming that greeted England’s decision to take the knee. We were prepared for that, but it didn’t feel like anything was lingering.
Still, the booing when England players took the knee at Middlesbrough in June was more shocking as it came from those who are supposed to love them.
The mood in the stadium turned when Sterling gave England the lead in the second half
A flare was thrown after England’s third goal while coins were also lobbed on to the pitch
But what moved Budapest into the realms of Podgorica and Sofia was the way the mood changed after Sterling scored.
The venom was startling. From all angles, cups full of beer came raining down. There were 27 of them strewn around Sterling, as he rose to his feet. There was not one attempt by police or stewards to go into the crowd to try to find those responsible. The Carpathian Brigade, as the Ultras are known, could do as they liked.
The booing also took on a different nature, screeching as if they had been affronted that a black player had struck a mighty blow. Once England had gone in front, it was clear, again, that their football was going to be relegated from top of the agenda when it deserved to be lauded to the hills.
Mason Mount condemned the abuse England’s stars had to deal with during the match
‘It is a disgrace how it keeps on happening,’ said Mason Mount. ‘Consequences are needed and the FA will be speaking to FIFA about it and hopefully they hand out bans. It needs to stop. We need to get this out of football.’
Too right. How can it be that in 2021 an 18-year-old like Jude Bellingham is being treated with such contempt? Read Juliette Ferrington’s account of what the Borussia Dortmund midfielder went through and see if you feel the authorities are doing enough to protect players. For 30 minutes, what was happening in the stadium was jaw-dropping.
The flare that fizzed past Luke Shaw after he had teed up Harry Maguire would have put him in hospital had he been struck by it — the coins aimed at Gareth Southgate, John Stones and Harry Kane could have blinded them.
‘As soon as we scored and what happened in the corner flag, you could tell within the atmosphere that something was going to be thrown or something would happen,’ Mount agreed.
‘Luckily no one got hurt or anything. When the whole stadium is against us, we grow.’
They did and it was to their credit. Still, though, the dominant theme was racism and Southgate, yet again, was pitched into the middle of a storm and required to speak like a statesman.
When first handed this grenade in Podgorica, he was visibly shaken. He was deeply upset again on Thursday but now when you see him dealing with the subject of racism, he simply looks numb because it must feel that his many fine words seem to be in vain.
We can screech for stadium closures and condemn UEFA and FIFA for their risible efforts in confronting this scourge but the mind went back to something England’s head coach said in Podgorica, as he was sitting up on a stage.
Gareth Southgate said sanctions against countries are only of use if they lead to education
‘Sanctions are only of any use if they lead to education,’ he said then. ‘Sanctions are worthless if there is nothing else alongside to help educate people.’
Some people, regrettably, are beyond educating. Those who throw beer and abuse — and, yes, some England fans are included in this — will never change their ways and, for the foreseeable future, these trips will always have the potential for problems.
Taking the knee, though, and the message it sends will have an impact on future generations. We must pray they are the ones who never see nights like this.