As Saturday’s songs drifted into the cool Wembley night air, England fans could have been forgiven for thinking they were dreaming as the men in white strode off the hallowed turf having just defeated the reigning World Champions, Spain.
So sure was the watching 90,000 that the visitors would steamroll England that hushed disbelief rather than a native roar greeted Frank Lampard’s 49th minute tap-in from Darren Bent’s header, and while Spain pressed on late in the second half to carve a plethora of chances - 71% of possession and 21 attempts on goal and still they couldn’t breach the watertight England defence.
This was an old yet new England; at the World Cup in South Africa John Terry’s despairing head first lunge at a ball no more than a few inches off the ground against Slovenia became the poster for all that was wrong with Fabio Capello’s doomed campaign; all gusto and effort with little idea of how to play the game; woefully outclassed and out-flanked by a young German side keen to ruthlessly exploit the gung-ho defending that marked the end of another slipshod tournament for England.
Against Spain, there was cohesion, banks of four working in tandem to strangle space for the diminutive Spaniards, and when they did breach the line inevitably an English body was in the way. These were qualities of an old England, polished and presented for a new era, and led by one man in particular.
Scott Parker has all the hallmarks of old England yet has something new about him, at the age of 30 he finds himself at the heart of the new, young England revolution.
The Spurs man represented an image emblematic of England’s past and future infused; not aimless passion, blood, guts and thunder but a defensive determination and grit that was coupled by an element of creativeness that leaves his rivals for a midfield berth (most notably Gareth Barry) in the shade. He is not tarred by past failures nor is he racked by self doubt that cripples others with far more natural talent. He is a man who appears on course to assume the captaincy one day.
By far England’s best passer of the ball on the night, Parker completed more passes than any other man in white, although he was still only the 10th in the most passes completed table behind a wave of tiki-taka inspired Spaniards.
His admirable defensive work that saw him fall to the ground, writhing in agony only to get back up again to hurtle head first into the next sortie provoked a sense that England at once felt at ease with the qualities that had become ensconced their football but had become soiled and tarnished; on Saturday pride, passion and determination became more than empty rhetoric.
England were defensively obdurate and belligerent, but this time it was justified and the manner in which they stuck to their task may just fan the spark needed to reignite the nation’s love affair with its national team.
That is not to get carried away with the importance of the result. On face value the result is meaningless; Spain, already demonstrating their disinterest that has become helped them stumble to three other friendly since being crowned world champions, had perhaps already grown tired of a team less than their equals.
The sense of nervous foreboding held by the vast majority of seeped from the grand Wembley stands and into their play at times – Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka were inspired at times but their distribution needs serious work before either man can challenge Rio Ferdinand’s mantle as ball-playing centre-back in chief, while the pressing so constantly implored by Capello went awol as Spain swarmed forward.
Frank Lampard admitted late on Saturday evening as he was besieged by the media that England would have to develop their passing game if they are to trouble the best at Euro 2012 next year – a sentiment echoed by Fabio Capello as he fended off questions over whether he felt his side could win the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
Sweden have often reveled in raining on England’s parade, puncturing the elation of optimism felt by the country in two successive World Cups, holding England to two draws on the grandest of stages in recent years.
But for all the hesitancy, cautiousness and skepticism that surrounded this England victory, there was at least some reason to rejoice, even before Sweden come along and potentially spoil the feel good feeling that threatens to develop.
England must now look to escape the clutches of the past, where so many new dawns, golden eras and promises have crumbled to dust. They can fashion a style of football based on the ideas of old, of blood and thunder, but they must develop it for a new age of football where wanting it enough isn’t enough.
These are qualities that have been discarded as useless in the modern era, but they must form the foundations of whatever castle Capello wishes to build before the Euro’s.
England remain at odds with who they are and they brand of football they want to play, caught between caving to fans desire and the urge to win by any means necessary, but make no mistake about it, the game against Spain marks a start.
Aside from that however, while it lasts, enjoy being an England fan for a while. Perhaps its not so bad after all.