England battled to victory in their UEFA European Under-21 Championship opener against Finland despite playing for an hour with ten men and seeing Theo Walcott replaced at half-time in Halmstad. Lee Cattermole opened the scoring and Micah Richards grabbed the winner for Stuart Pearce's side at Orjans Vall after they had Michael Mancienne sent off for a professional foul.
Tim Sparv levelled from the penalty spot before seeing Walcott, his former Southampton team-mate, replaced at the interval in the Arsenal forward's first appearance at a major championship after going to the FIFA World Cup™ with the seniors three years ago, but not playing. Richards' header after the break earned England a vital win as their other Group B opponents are Spain and Germany, who are expected to provide sterner tests.
After three finals as a player and one as a coach, Pearce has finally started a tournament with a victory, but his side had to dig deep as Finland appeared to have the scent of an upset from the start. This is the biggest tournament the Finns have qualified for and they provided the majority of the fans at the 7,500-capacity stadium on the east coast of neighbouring Sweden.
Sparv, who was Walcott's house-mate when they were both Saints youngsters, suggested England would be laughing at the clubs Finland's youngsters played for, but the underdogs were deadly serious when play got under way. There was a swimsuit photoshoot on the beach outside England's hotel on the morning of the game, and Pearce's side were then driven to distraction by Sparv hitting balls over the top and causing indecisiveness. In fact, it was totally against the run of play when England took the lead in the 15th minute with their first serious attack.
James Milner's ball over the top looked simple enough to deal with, but Gabriel Agbonlahor muscled his way past Jonas Portin and cut the ball back for Cattermole to sidefoot home off left-back Jukka Raitala. It did not dampen the spirit of the Finns and they were level after Mancienne was sent off on the half-hour mark.
Another ball over the top from Sparv caused problems and the Chelsea defender bundled over Berat Sadik, grappling him to the ground. Either Mancienne or Joe Hart should have dealt with it, but it resulted in Sparv sending the Manchester City goalkeeper the wrong way from the spot and sparked manic celebrations where every Finnish outfield player jumped the hoardings and celebrated with fans. None of them were booked, but Agbonlahor was before the break when he used his arms to jump with Tuomo Turunen.
After a quiet 45 minutes, Walcott was replaced by Fraizer Campbell at the break, with Agbonlahor heading out to the flank. And England were ahead again eight minutes after the restart. Milner's free-kick had been tipped over the crossbar and it was the Aston Villa midfielder who swung over the corner.
Richards escaped Sparv's attentions and guided his header between the post and Kasper Hamalainen's attempted diving clearance. The response from Finland coach Markku Kanerva was to bring on Sevilla youngster Pukki Teemu for Jarno Parikka. Pukki went wide with one effort, but the Finns could not make their extra man count, although Jussi Vasara hit the side-netting late on with a header from a corner.
To shore up his midfield, Pearce brought on Jack Rodwell for the last five minutes and Agbonlahor was given a breather, while Richards limped off and James Tomkins came on. It still needed Hart to get down sharply when Pukki wriggled through for England to seal the win.