Whilst the biggest cheer in the second half came at Wembley in the 70th minute when Harry Kane scored with his second touch in international football just eighty seconds after coming on to replace Wayne Rooney, the most significant moment came a few minutes before. With 68 minutes on the clock Joe Hart got his hands on the ball for the first time since the break, and the third time in the whole game. Even in the most one-sided of FA Cup games where Non-League minnows are pitted against a Premier League side the keeper will see more of the action. Welcome to modern International football.
Hart actually got 3 touches of the ball in the first half, although 2 of those were in relation to back passes. At the other end, England scored four and could have easily got double that. Nobody will really care though as 4-0 sits in that “comprehensive, yet respectful” result bracket that still allows managers to roll out quotes such as “There’s no easy games in international football”, “they were tough opponents” and “it was a professional performance”. It the grand scheme of things it mattered very little. Since Platini got his way in increasing the size of the European Championships to 24 teams, or putting it in a statistical way, 49% of the nation’s affiliated to UEFA, England only really needed to avoid defeat in their toughest group game away in Switzerland. That game was the first in the campaign and the Three Lions won with ease. Since then San Marino, Estonia, Slovenia and now Lithuania have been brushed aside with efficiency rather than with panache. By the time they return from the game in San Marino in September I’d wager (if I was allowed by the ridiculous FA betting rules) that the 21 points will have already guaranteed a place on the Dover-Calais ferry for the finals in June 2016.
Hodgson will have learnt more from the friendly games again Scotland, Norway and the forthcoming games away in Turin and Dublin than these games. The calls for Kane tonight started as soon as Rooney had smartly headed England ahead in the 7th minute, but Hodgson ignored the growing calls from the crowd for the nation’s latest great hope until the 70th minute. Kane waited 80 seconds before he headed home. The Spurs fan next to me jumped for joy. “That’s my boy! Wizard Harry!” As he sat down a more dour chap reminded him that both Dennis Wise, David Nugent and Francis Jeffers also marked their debuts with a goal. Harsh words indeed.
It was good to see the team keep possession of the ball so well and for long periods of time. Passing at times was crisp and pacy – today’s coaches earn their Pro-licence money by trying to integrate often self-centred players with egos the size of small planets, who are used to playing for every million-pound point in the Premier League into a different style than at international level. You can’t fault some of the approach play which saw the Lithuanian defence carved open time and time again. Each of the four goals showed touches of training ground moves rather than individual brilliance and that would please any coach.
The news that Hodgson may be given a new contract should be welcomed. He has affected a quiet revolution in the approach of the squad, failing to pander to the media. His experience at managing at the top-level in different countries has given the squad a more humble approach. There may have been a temptation to listen to those journalists who yearn for one last hurrah for the “golden generation”. Terry, Gerrard and Lampard have all been touted as coming out of retirement to play this season. That would be a massive backward step. England looked assured with Jones, Henderson and Delph. Clyne played with maturity at full back and Welbeck seems to raise his game on the International stage. It is more than possible we will go through qualifying with a 100% record which will then translate in some quarters of the media to an arrogance that we have a God-given right to win the European Championships. Whilst the Premier League may be lauded as the best league in the world by many, the truth (as borne out in some ways by the failure of any English team to reach the last 8 of either European club competition this season) is that it isn’t. We have to accept that we are a solid, sometimes explosive team, that on its day will perform well. We are no Germany, Netherlands, Spain or even France where decades of investment into coaching has put them on a different level to the English game.
Things are changing though, and with patience and most importantly an attitude from the top clubs to develop AND play home grown talent, we will start to close the gap. Southampton and now to an extent Liverpool should be applauded for the investment they have made in their Academies as well as giving the youngsters a chance. One day, Man City and Chelsea will realise that buying their way to the Premier League is actually damaging the national game.
This was my first trip to see England at Wembley in almost three years. It was good to see a few things had changed. The tie up with EE meant that a mobile signal was actually possible during the game. The whole concept of integrating the crowd into the event via social media worked well. “Upload your Wembley selfie using the hashtag #WembleySelfie” saw thousands of fans posing, whilst the post match chaos at Wembley Park was managed well and within 15 minutes of the final whistle we was on a southbound tube.
Alas there are still some things that never change. Sitting next to the bank of “corporates” behind the dugout (the ones that face the cameras and are always empty post half-time) it was disheartening to see people stumbling back to their seats twenty minutes into the second period, with no interest in the game at all. Half and half scarves seemed to be popular, selling at £10 – a 100% mark up from a respective Premier League version. Oh, and the band. They were still there, occasionally breaking into an out of tune version of Self-Preservation Society or God Save The Queen before giving up as no one joined in. And talking of joining in, adverts run by Mars around the pitch encouraging fans to start a Mexican Wave? Please! Stick to making chocolate.
It was a great night for Harry Kane, a good one for Hodgson and most of the 84,000 (!!!) fans but my man of the match had to be Joe Hart. How we kept his concentration is beyond me – a true professional performance. At least the Kitman doesn’t have to wash his kit for the Italian game on Tuesday!