For the second match in succession, this was a little more like it. England played as a team, kept their shape throughout the game, and overcame their individual weaknesses to close Israel out and edge towards Euro 2008 qualification.
Let’s get some reservations out of the way: England’s passing lacked any real confidence. Waddle’s observation from earlier in the year that England will only pass to a man in three metres of space still applies. There was plenty of loose long-ball stuff around. Stronger opposition would have presented far more of a challenge.
But Israel’s challenge was prevented from showing itself because of the way England, and in particular Gerrard and Barry, played. England made their opponents’ performance poor. That hasn’t happened in quite some time.
I’ve had the sense for a while that the worst is over, for England, and this match strengthened it.
First of all, Steve McClaren has dustbinned the PR approach and the fake grin. Despite the way his team performed, he spent the game looking like a man on the rack. This is believable, and realism is encouraging; you can relate to it, and you know what it’s thinking.
Secondly, England did something different yesterday. Did you spot it? They competed for possession when they lost it, instead of retreating. They chased and tackled. And they kept it up. This was one game where they didn’t end up overstretched, or pinned into their own area for the last fifteen minutes. This has been a matter of enormous personal frustration for this England-watcher, ever since the June ’79 friendly draw with Sweden.
Then there is the team itself. I’m pleased to see little press influence in its make-up. Ramsey-style, injuries have imposed a line-up and a shape, and, all of a sudden, you can hear it click into place. Heskey’s not Rooney – he’s not even Crouch – but all he has to do is make it easy for Owen, and he did rather more than that. Welcome back, Emile; make yourself comfortable. Barry isn’t Scholes, Gerrard, or even Lampard; he’s not Barton thank heaven. But he looked right, a kind of midfield version of Roger Hunt.
The proper players are back, and it shows. Owen’s goal was his best for England (I’ve never rated the ’98 one – I first saw it six months after the event and was hugely disappointed. Not so this time). SWP has his mojo back, and I wonder, looking at him, if he’ll ever lose it so badly again. David Bentley is finally in the squad, and should stay there. Micah Richards has proved himself beyond all doubt, now, and should really be first choice from here on.
Above all, it feels real. Not the greatest side in the world, or even a golden generation, but they play as a group and work hard.
Sol Campbell for John Terry, if Campbell is fit, and there’s the team to face Russia.