Gareth Southgate admitted that some of these England players didn’t deserve to be here. Nor did the crowd, who were subjected to a night of torpor when the task was simple. Perform, win, qualify, relax, let Russia invade your dreams.
This was perhaps the unhappiest happy moment in all of England qualifying campaigns. With Harry Kane as saviour - again - Southgate’s players can return to looking good in Premier League games, where they are surrounded by talented foreigners. Together, though, in England shirts, they are stuck in a cycle of blunt displays, redeemed only by the outcome: a place at their 15th World Cup, in the vast terrain of Russia.
“Tonight highlighted where we are,” said Southgate, who is seldom guilty of slapping polish on a bad performance. “Where they are” now is in need of a rethink about their style of play. A stoppage time goal from Kane, the tickets booked for St Petersburg - where they are expected to be based. Those bare facts buy a little peace, but this scrambled 1-0 win over Slovenia brings no other comfort. Kane alone escapes censure for a dreadful display and England’s over-reliance on him was again apparent.
More pertinent than the plane that will fly England to Russia was the paper one that landed on the field, just to Southgate’s right: a symbol of the crowd’s boredom and disbelief that England, on such a big night, could be this bad. When thousands chase alternative entertainment from the playground game of launching paper jets, and sink into sour indifference, you know a team is struggling.
Jeers soon followed. It was like sitting in an increasingly unruly class where the pupils are wondering just how far to push it. The players were in one of those vortexes where nobody can do anything about the awfulness of their play. With 10 minutes to go, hundreds among the 61,598 crowd flowed up steps to the exits. The lap of honour was a non-event.
The Football Association’s staff gathered expecting to be released from the wheel of fire they have been on these past 12 months. In that time, the men’s and women’s national team manager (Sam Allardyce and Mark Sampson) have been sacked, a majority among 17 MPs in the Commons passed a vote of no confidence in the governing body, and, most importantly, the child sex abuse scandal assumed a terrifying scale and force.
England’s prospects in Russia are of no importance compared to that tide of human cruelty and misery. Yet the moment of qualification is something to be cherished. It opens up the future, in the narrow sporting sense; it pulls the country from the dull present (these Wembley games!) and transplants it to a World Cup, in summer time, where anything is possible.
Hope renews itself. Or so the theory goes. Irrefutably with England, the spell has worn off, the faith eroded. Leaving the 2014 World Cup eight days after it started, and losing to Iceland at Euro 2016, could not be dismissed as setbacks in some great “transition” phase. There was never a chance that amnesia would erase the humiliations of Brazil and France. Allardyce’s downfall only deepened the sense of chaos. Even with Scotland in the group to add a decent rivalry, the race to Russia felt like another slow repair job, with fixtures that failed to excite.
That was the unhappiest happy moment I've seen in 25 years of covering England qualifying campaigns. Can't go to Russia playing like that.
— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) October 5, 2017
The diagnosis of creeping indifference made at the recent Slovakia game was correct. Again the top tier of seats opposite Southgate’s coaching zone was empty. Again vacant seats peppered the populated sections. Until Kane unleashed one of his precisely measured, long-range shots, barely a squeak was heard from the audience. Even the hardcore, go-anywhere, England-till-I-die brigade seem to be having an emotional sabbatical.
In truth, the patience of England’s fans was bound to be strained by yet another qualifying tour of Eastern Europe, and the slowing of the team’s play, with ball rotation to the fore. What we saw here was that too many England players mistake patience for dreaminess. Raheem Sterling, theoretically the No 10, could barely keep hold of the ball, or his designated position. There was no zip or precision or purpose in England’s passing. And certainly no rhythm. Southgate is not getting the response he hoped for.
This limp first-half display defied all logic. Here was a chance to qualify in London, on home soil, and render Sunday’s trip to Lithuania a ceremonial visit. The application of basic Premier League quality should have been enough to put the team on the road to Russia by half-time. Instead they traipsed into the dressing room 0-0, to await, one hopes, the biggest verbal blast of Southgate’s time in charge.
If he gave it to them, it made no difference. England were just as bad after the break. As the crowd’s indignation grew, the team’s greatest asset for Russia seemed to be draining from the picture: youthful confidence. Southgate says they will “improve” and should not be held accountable for decades of under-achievement. Fair enough. But they cannot play like this in Russia - and only they can put that right.