England brought the fireworks to the second half as they took a major step towards qualification to next year’s Qatar World Cup. The diehard Hungary fans, however, invited censure by throwing one at the celebrating England players.
It was a dangerous moment in the aftermath of England’s third goal, headed home by Harry Maguire from a Luke Shaw corner, and the only mercy was that it did not find its target.
On a similarly depressing note, it was reported by ITV that Raheem Sterling, who scored the opening goal and made the second for Harry Kane, was the target of monkey chants from the home crowd. The broadcaster said that the noises were also directed at the substitute, Jude Bellingham.
Hungary’s fans have been given a two-game stadium ban by Uefa for racist and homophobic behaviour at the Euro 2020 finals – they will serve it when the Nations League kicks off next summer – and this was another evening when their worst excesses bubbled to the surface.
Sterling was pelted with paper cups after he opened the scoring early in the second half and ran towards one of the corner flags, lifting his shirt to reveal a message to his friend, Steffie Gregg, who has passed away. Thereafter the ultras were on his back, hurling abuse when he appealed for a couple of penalties. They would go too far in the closing stages.
England could have won by more as Kane blew a hat-trick of clear chances before a Declan Rice shot was fumbled into the net by Peter Gulacsi. But in the end, it was an evening when England had to contend with more than what was thrown at them in football terms.
It was the first time that England had played away from home in front of a full stadium since November 2019 – their one road trip at Euro 2020 had been to a largely empty Olympic Stadium in Rome for the quarter-final victory over Ukraine – and the atmosphere pulsed.
The Carpathian Brigade, a group of hardcore Hungary supporters dressed in black shirts, massed behind one of the goals well before kick-off and the reaction when England’s players took the knee drew ear-splitting jeers. As Southgate noted on Wednesday, this type of thing is hardly exclusive to non-English crowds. It bears reporting that the hosts respected the British national anthem when it was played.
England have previous with Hungary. In downtown Budapest stands the 6:3 Borozo wine bar, once owned by Nandor Hidegkuti, one of the stars of the Mighty Magyars who routed England by that scoreline at Wembley in 1953, while Hungary’s 7-1 win at the old Nepstadion the following year remains England’s heaviest defeat.
Southgate wanted better here. One of his mantras has been that England can write their own history and his players tried to draw the sting from the partisan home fans at the outset by hogging the ball and squeezing up. The starting system was 4-3-3 and it was noticeable how Kalvin Phillips pressed high as a No 8 on the right when England had possession, as Mason Mount did on the left.
There is a feelgood factor around this Hungary team, particularly after their encouraging performances at the Euros, even if they were ultimately unable to escape a group that featured Portugal, France and Germany. Their draws against the latter pair shone a light on their potential and they want to believe that a first World Cup qualification since Mexico 86 is possible.
Hungary were determined to hold their 3-4-2-1 shape out of possession, and they were out of it for long spells before the interval. What could England do with the ball? They were neat and tidy, working their patterns with patience but there was precious little cutting edge.
Jack Grealish looked the likeliest to make something happen, working off the left and happy to take risks. He collected a pass from Mount after 21 minutes before finding Kane who rasped a shot high, while Grealish almost released the overlapping Shaw with a cute chip into the box. Peter Gulacsi was quick to leave his line.
Maguire headed off target from an early corner and there was the moment in the 45th minute when Sterling blasted to the byline to cut back for Mount, whose shot was blocked. It was slim pickings in the first half, although at least Hungary were restricted.
John Stones, playing his first minutes of the season, misjudged a bouncing ball forward before recovering to move away from Roland Sallai while Dominik Szoboszlai, the great hope of Hungarian football, lifted a free-kick high after Rice had fouled Adam Szalai.
England pushed harder at the start of the second half, looking sharper, their intent more pronounced. They ought to have led before they did: Kane used his body to manoeuvre himself on to Kyle Walker’s through-ball, getting away from Willi Orban only to shoot too close to Gulacsi. It was an uncharacteristic miss.
The breakthrough was a beauty, started by Rice winning the ball high up from Orban and Grealish playing in the overlapping Mount after drawing a couple of red shirts to him. The cross was true, and Sterling opened up his body to finish inside the far corner.
Hungary were broken. They could not get out and England turned the screw. The second goal followed a Phillips interception and was created by Sterling, whose cross deflected for Kane to bury a diving header.
Kane should have scored again only to be denied by Gulacsi after a Grealish pass and then came the firework controversy. Shaw was pelted with paper cups before he took a corner and, when Maguire’s header went through Gulacsi’s hands and England celebrated, a fan behind the goal launched a missile.