“We are off to Russia,” boomed the voice over the loudspeakers. The crowd cheered obediently. The players embraced and, if we are going to be generous, England must be doing something right bearing in mind they have now reached four major tournaments in a row without losing a solitary qualifying match.
At the same time, it did not always feel like a night for celebration and it was actually heading towards an ignominious finale, with the crowd becoming increasingly mutinous until that moment three minutes into stoppage time, when Harry Kane jutted out his right foot to sugarcoat this bland performance with the winning goal.
Kane has now scored 14 times in his past nine games and this latest one might have spared England a mixed response at the final whistle. Throughout the second half the crowd had felt it necessary to create their own entertainment, mostly with a squadron of paper planes being launched from the stands. It never looks good when Wembley has to make its own fun and in the last quarter of an hour the crowd’s patience was starting to wear thin. There were jeers for Raheem Sterling when a late attack broke down and more boos when Ryan Bertrand aimed a pass all the way back to Joe Hart from the halfway line.
The early-leavers would have headed away reflecting on a joyless night and for a team who still like to think of themselves as football royalty – note Marcus Rashford’s statement during the week that England were finally in a position to repeat 1966 – it was hardly the most convincing way to reach Russia. “Tonight highlighted where we are,” Southgate acknowledged afterwards.
The official man-of-the-match award actually went to Hart after a courageous double save, injuring himself in the process, to spare England from going behind towards the end of the 90 minutes. Hart might have given away a penalty in the first half too and from a less dangerous Slovenia attack he needed three attempts to clutch the ball safely. Rashford, England’s liveliest attacker, might have been a better choice but the goalkeeper’s selection seemed more appropriate, perhaps, for the narrative of a stodgy performance.