‘VENUE OF LEGENDS’ is how the old Wembley was marketed and the moniker proved a fitting one.
Particularly in international football, with Geoff Hurst leading a pantheon of England greats who have written their names into sporting folklore in this country with deeds under the Twin Towers.
Bobby Moore, Stanley Matthews and Paul Gascoigne are just some of those to have also lit up the Empire Stadium – the old Wembley’s official name, like its facilities in later years, belonging to a distant age – before the demolition crews moved in following the 2000 defeat to Germany that brought the curtain down on the old place.
It says plenty about the fortunes of English football in recent years that the most iconic Three Lions image the new Wembley, which threw open its turnstiles for the first time 10 years ago last Friday for an Under-21s friendly against Italy, can muster is Steve McClaren standing pitchside, sheltering under an umbrella, as his side failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
That ‘wally with the brolly’ episode came against Croatia in England’s sixth outing at their new abode.
By then, any pretence of the nation’s new footballing cathedral having an aura of invincibility about it had already been swept away.
First, by Italy’s Giampaolo Pazzini taking just 25 seconds of that grand opening by the Under-21s to christen the new Wembley with a goal and then by a victory for the German senior side a few months later.
It was clear from these two defeats that a stadium costing almost £800m to build was going to inspire the visitors every bit as much as those sporting the Three Lions emblem.
With that in mind, England’s record of 39 victories from 54 senior outings is not too shabby. Nor are the 124 goals that have been scored during those first 10 years.
Jermain Defoe has bagged eight of those, a tally that includes the only hat-trick scored by an England player since the return to the nation’s spiritual home in 2007.
The chances of the 34-year-old netting for an eighth time under the Arch seemed slim when this season got under way, not least because his last international outing had come in November, 2013.
A friendly against Chile to mark the Football Association’s 150th anniversary had been the occasion, shortly after which Defoe headed to Toronto and a life in the Major Soccer League – or ‘retirement’, as it is more commonly known in European football circles.
Twelve months later, however, and the striker was on his way back home after Sunderland had seen off interest from Steve Bruce’s Hull City to sign him.
Thirty three goals for a struggling team later and yesterday brought a welcome back into the international fold. And what a fitting return it proved.
Defoe, despite Joe Hart being captain, led England out ahead of kick-off holding the hand of Bradley Lowery, the terminally ill five-year-old Sunderland fan whose plight has so touched the nation.
Lowery, covering his ears on the way out of the tunnel to blot out the roar of the crowd, was visited by his hero in hospital a few months ago and the pair have since struck up a huge friendship.
He was desperate to see Defoe mark his return with a goal. So, too, were his team-mates, judging by the ill-advised attempt to thread Defoe through early on when a simple pass to the unmarked Raheem Sterling would have put the Manchester City man away.
Defoe’s big moment did arrive in the 21st minute, meaning the standing ovation the Sunderland man received on being substituted after an hour was heart-felt and deserved.
At 34, he clearly is not one for the future. He might not even be in the squad when England face Malta in September.
But, yesterday, Defoe ensured the Three Lions’ second decade at the new Wembley began with three points.