This is what happens when Harry Kane – in the form of his life – is left to kick his heels on the substitutes’ bench. When he was unchained, the result was instant, the England captain forcing the equaliser 40 seconds after his introduction.
It would go down as an own goal by the North Macedonia midfielder, Jani Atanasov, but it was the presence of Kane, his darting run on to a Phil Foden corner just before the hour, that panicked his marker.
And so England got something from the final game of an excellent Euro 2024 qualification campaign, their progress never in doubt from the moment that they beat Italy in Naples in the opening tie. Mercifully, the goal also took some of the focus away from the referee, Filip Glova, who had one of those evenings when he was impossible to ignore, mainly for the wrong reasons.
Glova had rocked England and the debutant, Rico Lewis, who had come in to fill the problem position of left-back, when he gave North Macedonia a penalty towards the end of the first half and Enis Bardhi scored from the rebound. After a nudge from the VAR, Glova ruled that Lewis had put his hand in the face of Bojan Miovski as he won a clearing header. It was not Glova’s only overly fussy intervention.
The match fizzled out after that, England far from perfect but nevertheless better than they were in the 2-0 Wembley win over Malta last Friday. They finish the calendar year with a record of eight wins and two draws from 10 games. As everybody knows, it will be about how they finish the season at the European Championship in Germany.
North Macedonia were determined at the outset to let England know they would be in a physical battle and the constant nibbles at Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, in particular, were both tiresome and a test of the wingers’ respective temperaments. Gareth Southgate threw his arms up in frustration.
Glova was far too central a figure for anybody’s liking and he had two decisions to make at the other end in the first half, North Macedonia screaming for a penalty on each occasion. He ignored the first one and gave the second, which felt wrong on each occasion but did that add up to a right? Let’s start with the first one, which was the turning point of the half because, up to that point, England had dominated, Ollie Watkins – who started ahead of Kane – having a couple of sniffs and Declan Rice banging a low shot through a crowd and against the far post.
There was no danger when Harry Maguire got on the ball in the 23rd minute and then, in the blink of an eye, there was when he passed straight to Miovski, who moved it to Eljif Elmas. Cue the one-on-one between Maguire and Elmas, with the former’s challenge clumsy, to say the least. He appeared to lose his balance and barge into Elmas; shades of Boris Johnson at Soccer Aid. Glova gave Maguire the benefit of the considerable doubt.
On to the next one and it was Lewis who rose to head away a cross from the North Macedonia left, clearly winning the ball. But why was Miovski, the Aberdeen striker, laid out on the ground? It turned out that with his leveraging, jumping arm, Lewis had put his hand in Miovski’s face. Upon the advice of the VAR, Glova checked the pitchside monitor and, after a long think, he pointed to the spot. It was a ludicrously harsh decision. The North Macedonia captain, Bardhi, saw Jordan Pickford save his kick but he would gobble up the rebound. Miovski was the toast of all of Scotland. England had it all to do.
England’s 7-0 victory over North Macedonia at Old Trafford in June had provided a significant part of the backstory. It was the heaviest defeat in North Macedonia’s history and there was little doubt that they were motivated to show they were more than that. They did so.
Southgate’s starting XI had been progressive, Trent Alexander-Arnold retained in midfield; no Kalvin Phillips, so no double bolt with Rice. It was particularly noticeable at the outset how Lewis played up and inside when England had possession; high up at times. Lewis could almost see the headlines in the early running when a corner was only half-cleared to him. The first-time shot was wild. He did not deserve his moment of VAR misfortune.
The all-seeing technology would deny England at the start of the second half. The first period had ended with Alexander-Arnold extending Stole Dimitrievski from distance and now England thought they had the equaliser after lovely work from Saka on the right. He wriggled away from two challenges and unloaded his cross before a third could get him. Grealish had a tap-in at the far post but he would be pulled back for offside.
England stayed calm and, with Kane on the field, their fortunes improved immediately. It had been a massive opportunity for Watkins and, in the final analysis, one that he did not take. He was peripheral, only touching the ball 11 times.