THE hibernation of international football during the depths of winter meant the redevelopment of the area surrounding Wembley that continues at pace was clear for all to see as the England fans started to arrive ahead of Friday night’s opening Euro 2020 qualifier.
Since the Three Lions had last played at the national stadium in November, a giant new venue, home to umpteen food and drink vendors, had opened near the foot of the steps leading down from Wembley Park tube station.
Much more subtle – but no less impressive – has been the rebuild of the national team brought about by Gareth Southgate during his two-and-a-half years at the helm.Richard Sutcliffe
Other new outlets could also be seen welcoming the red, white and blue-clad hordes for the first time, while even more cranes seemed to fill the Brent skyline than had been the case for Croatia’s visit four months earlier.
Much more subtle – but no less impressive – has been the rebuild of the national team brought about by Gareth Southgate during his two-and-a-half years at the helm.
The five-goal demolition of the Czech Republic saw England field two 18-year-olds – including the first player to be born since the old Wembley closed its doors for the last time – to great effect and hand the first of what seems likely to be many, many caps to a 20-year-old who recently switched allegiances from the Republic of Ireland.
Raheem Sterling, thanks to his hat-trick and a performance that made a mockery of the 27 games he went without scoring for England not so long ago, took the headlines and the match-ball.
But the manner in which Jadon Sancho delighted the crowd on his full debut, plus the introduction of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Declan Rice from the bench, were arguably the biggest plusses of the night as Southgate’s faith in youth was fully justified once again.
This unstinting belief is why England continue to evolve at a pace similar to how Sancho darted down the right wing to set up the opening goal against the Czechs for Sterling.
To underline just how far the national team has come, a glance back to Southgate’s first line-up is in order.
Just two-and-a-half years on from that 2-0 win over Malta, many of the names belong to a bygone age with goalkeeper Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Wayne Rooney, The Walcott, Ryan Bertrand and Daniel Sturridge all having been jettisoned.
Crucially, though, a smattering of that XI are still involved – namely Jordan Henderson, Kyle Walker, Dele Alli, John Stones and Jesse Lingard – to ensure it has been a case of evolution and not revolution.
Such a careful reconstruction job – which has included a couple of big shifts in thinking over formation – is why the likes of Sancho and Hudson-Odoi have been able to slot in so easily.
And why Sterling, even now just 24, is starting to bring his consistency from the Premier League to the biggest stage of all.
“We have known each other since very young,” said Hudson-Odoi – born exactly one month after Wembley hosted its last international in October, 2000 – about Borussia Dortmund attacker Sancho.
“We used to play against each other and have always been close friends. We always call each other, speak to each other, see how each other is going. He has had a great season and, since I have been here, he has helped me from day one.”
Hudson-Odoi may still be waiting for his first Premier League start with Chelsea but there was no fear in his play on Friday night.
“From young I have been the same way,” he said. “So has he (Sancho). We have been playing sometimes on the streets and that is how we play. We normally play on the park and in the cages.
“It is definitely good because we have that raw mentality, that mentality to go at defenders. Be confident, be yourself, don’t be shy about anyone.”