A sell-out St Mary’s crowd bore witness to the most entertaining qualifier in many a year as Gareth Southgate’s men continued their march to Euro 2020 with an enthralling, if at times unconvincing, 5-3 victory on the south coast.
Defensive errors gifted Kosovo a shock opener and then second-half hope, but a clinical first half proved decisive as Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane goals were complemented by an own goal and quickfire brace from Sancho in a helter-skelter clash.
It was certainly a memorable first senior international meeting between these countries and the tough challenge predicted by Southgate, who always knew the visitors would be a far sterner test than their 120th place in the world rankings suggested.
Valon Berisha’s opener after 34 seconds underlined that point emphatically, even if it was Michael Keane acting as architect thanks to some brainless defending.
It was a remarkable night that got off to an astonishing start.
Keane watched helplessly as his first-time pass found Vedat Muriqi rather than Harry Maguire, with the ball quickly played onto Berisha to coolly finish.
The defender’s embarrassment faded slightly in the eighth minute after heading a corner onto Sterling to glance home.
It was an impressive response from the Three Lions and the fightback did not stop there.
Sterling superbly turned on the halfway line, burst forward and directed wide to Kane, who took a touch away from danger to fizz a low shot through Aro Muric’s legs.
Kosovo responded manfully and Vojvoda went closest with a dipping strike from distance.
Soon the full-back would find the net, but not in the way he would have wanted after accidentally turning home a driven Sancho cross.
Kosovo were apoplectic that the goal was allowed to stand, with Fidan Aliti left on the deck following an innocuous 50-50 challenge with Trent Alexander-Arnold. Kosovo boss Bernard Challandes led the remonstrations and was booked for his behaviour.
Declan Rice won the ball back to start a break that ended with Sterling swinging a low cross to Sancho, who showed poise that belied his tender years to notch his first international goal.
That historic effort was quickly added to as Sterling flew past his man down the flank and squared for Sancho to prod home.
Berisha reduced the deficit in style in the 49th minute after Rice gave away possession and England failed to heed that shot across the bows and Muriqi beat Jordan Pickford from the spot after being taken down by Maguire.
Kosovo’s dreams of a comeback appeared to be ended when Ross Barkley was adjudged to have been brought down in the box and Kane stepped up to the spot. But days after netting a pair of penalties against Bulgaria, the Three Lions captain was thwarted by Muric.
The goalkeeper was helped by the fact he had stepped off his line, but there were no complaints when he later turned Sterling’s strike onto a post.
The sides continued to trade blows but there were no more goals in a thrilling match.
England: Pickford, Alexander-Arnold, Keane, Maguire, Chilwell, Henderson, Rice, Barkley (Mount 83), Sancho (Rashford 85), Kane, Sterling. Unused substitutes: Heaton, Gomez, Wilson, Mings, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Pope, Trippier, Maddison, Winks, Rose.
Kosovo: Muric, Vojvoda, Rrahmani, Aliti, Hadergjonaj, Voca (Raskaj 59), Halimi, Muslija (Leart Paqarada 46), Celina, Valon Berisha (Hasani 85), Muriqi. Unused substitutes: Kryeziu, Zhegrova, Rashani, Nuhiu, Ujkani, Dresevic, Bernard Berisha, Bekaj.