England advanced to the 2009 UEFA European Under-21 Championship but only after being given a scare by Wales who drew 2-2 in a thrilling second leg of their play-off.
England had conceded just one goal, a penalty, in the qualifying group but after letting in two in a 3-2 victory in the away leg last Friday, they again struggled to contain Brian Flynn's vibrant side. Wales had a boisterous Villa Park crowd on the edge of their seats after recovering from Tom Huddlestone's early strike to take a 2-1 lead through goals from Aaron Ramsey and Simon Church. An own goal by Sam Vokes restored parity before the break and, despite Huddlestone's second-half dismissal, England, semi-finalists in 2007, hung on to qualify.
The opening stages were played out in Welsh territory and the hosts' possession paid off after 12 minutes when Adam Johnson was brought down by Ramsey on the edge of the Wales area. Huddlestone curled the free-kick low into the right corner to put England ahead. Trailing 4-2 on aggregate, the visitors now needed three goals at least to progress. Yet rather than let heads drop, they set about the task with belief. Church, scorer of both Wales's first-leg goals, forced Joe Hart into a smart stop, then Andy King shot wide.
Twists and turns
Wales were emphatically back in the tie after 24 minutes, however, when Ramsey gathered the ball in midfield and released a blistering left-foot strike from 25 metres that flew into the top-left corner. Six minutes later they turned the game on its head. Ramsey played Church through and he fired beyond Hart for his third goal of the play-off. England coach Stuart Pearce had stuck with the side that won in Cardiff, but he was soon making changes as he sought to regain control in midfield – Fabrice Muamba replaced Lee Cattermole. Pearce, though, had fortune to thank for England's equaliser on 35 minutes as Steven Taylor's header ricocheted off Vokes and in.
Denied by the post
As play switched from end to end, all that was lacking in a frenetic British encounter was a rainstorm, and that duly arrived shortly after England had welcomed the half-time whistle with no further damage done. The substitution of home favourite Gabriel Agbonlahor – the Aston Villa FC forward succumbing to a hamstring injury – for Fraizer Campbell suggested otherwise. In Agbonlahor's absence, it was another Villa man, James Milner, who came close to restoring England's advantage with a stinging drive, well blocked by Owain Fon Williams. However, the momentum swung back Wales's way after 65 minutes when Huddlestone was shown a straight red card for a reckless challenge on Darcey Blake. Needing one goal to force extra time, Wales stepped up the pressure and Vokes hit the post with a low strike on 85 minutes. Yet that was as close as they would come as England held on.