‘OUR England, our time,’ read the banner unfurled briefly at the front of the upper tier as ‘God save the Queen’ reverberated around the national stadium.
Even allowing for the manner in which the Three Lions had reconnected with the country during 2018, such a message seemed a tad fanciful as Gareth Southgate’s men prepared to take on a Croatia side who had dumped them out of the World Cup semi-finals some 130 days earlier.
A couple of hours later, however, and the words on the banner felt somewhat appropriate.
Having followed a wholly unexpected run to the last four in Russia by topping a group containing Spain and Croatia to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Nations League, England’s time is, if not already here, then very much on the way.
Southgate, in a little under two years since taking charge on a permanent basis, has transformed a team riddled with insecurities into one that genuinely looks at home at the top level.
Croatia, England’s conquerors during the summer in Moscow, had taken the lead yesterday and were still in front with 12 minutes remaining.
This is a team going places. Be it the jet-heeled attacking threat of Marcus Rahsford and Raheem Sterling, the steely-eyed finishing of Kane when it really matters or the assured manner in which Ben Chilwell and Joe Gomez have slotted into the back four, positives abound for the Three Lions right now.Richard Sutcliffe
But, make no mistake, this was a victory that the hosts fully merited thanks to a display dripping with attacking intent and purpose.
The opening quarter, in fact, was as good a performance as the new Wembley had seen from an England side with only a combination of Lovre Kalinic’s reflexes in the Croatia goal and some profligate finishing ensuring revenge had not been secured for that heart-breaking semi-final loss long before half-time.
Even Zlatko Dalic’s men taking the lead against the run of play could not deflect the revitalised Three Lions as two goals inside seven minutes from Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane sent the home fans in the 78,221 crowd into raptures. If, as Wayne Rooney suggested in the wake of his farewell appearance in Thursday’s victory over the United States, some of England’s stars of the recent under-achieving past are jealous of the current crop then there is every chance the coming months and years will make them even more green with envy.
This is a team going places. Be it the jet-heeled attacking threat of Marcus Rahsford and Raheem Sterling, the steely-eyed finishing of Kane when it really matters or the assured manner in which Ben Chilwell and Joe Gomez have slotted into the back four, positives abound for the Three Lions right now.
Then there is Eric Dier, often criticised for both England and Tottenham Hotspur over the past couple of years, but totally dominant against Croatia.
If there was a tackle to be made, Dier made it. If Croatia’s midfield, so dominant when these two teams had been at the World Cup, ever looked capable of shaking off English shackles Dier was invariably the man whose anticipation meant the defensive door was slammed in the face of Luka Modric, Nikola Vlasic et al.
Another midfielder who deserves special praise is Fabian Delph, especially during a first half in which the former Leeds United man was superb.
He produced a neat side-step to leave two would-be challengers trailing and his subsequent raking pass left Kalinic with no option but to abandon his penalty area in the hope of beating Sterling to the ball. This he managed, though the header fell only as far as Kane.
His first shot was blocked by Tin Jedvaj, and his second by an outstretched leg from Kalinic as the goalkeeper regained his ground. Kalinic had earlier won a battle of wills with Sterling after Kane had cleverly released the Manchester City man with a deft flick.
From the resulting corner Kane, totally unmarked and just eight yards out, drove over after slipping at the vital moment.
These misses looked to have come back to haunt England 12 minutes after the restart when Andrej Kramaric broke the deadlock via a shot that took an unfortunate deflection off Dier to loop beyond Jordan Pickford.
Southgate’s men, however, refused to be bowed and parity was restored 12 minutes from time when Lingard prodded in from a yard after Kane had turned a John Stones flick-on back across goal.
Replays suggested Gomez’s foot encroached on to the field when taking the throw-in that Stones diverted towards the England captain.
If this was the slice of good fortune needed to win a game of such importance, England seized upon it.
Just five minutes remained when the hosts were awarded a free-kick wide on the left.
The delivery from Ben Chilwell, David Wagner’s first signing as Huddersfield Town manager when he joined on loan from Leicester City, was enough to see the ball evade a host of defenders and Kane did the rest by sliding in at the far post.
From relegation to league winners in an instant. England’s evolution under Southgate has not been quite as dramatic, but there is no doubt this is now a team going places, first stop Portugal.