When Alan Hansen ill-advisedly uttered the infamous line "You don't win anything with kids" over a decade ago, I doubt that he, let alone the many critics and commentators who jumped on that quote, would have imagined the longevity it would still have today. In terms of relevance, that soundbyte surpasses his glittering playing achievements for most, except maybe Liverpool fans. Yet last night's 1-4 win in Zagreb, the first defeat for the Croation national side on home soil, put Hansen's blithe write-off to the sword, and more seriously, presented the possibility that in Fabio Capello, England may just have found the first coach able to meet English expectations since that Gareth Southgate penalty in 1996.
Let's not for one minute start up the England uber alles brigade - despite resonating around Europe, the defeat of Croatia counts for nothing at the moment aside from a pretty looking table. The fickle nature of England fans, who booed the team's victory away in Andorra but jubilantly cheered the team's victory away in Croatia, should be firmly ignored in judging the chances of a current England team. (Incidentally, we shouldn't even have to play pointless matches against countries like Andorra, but that's another matter entirely). It is easy to see why Capello prefers playing away from home, away the Wembley spotlight and the hysterical media circus that so dominates around England internationals. 'England Expects' all right, but 'England Accepts' is not something supporters are well versed in. From the fans' verdict, the team is either world-beaters or no-hopers, when in fact the actual, far less extreme truth is somewhere in between, edging towards the former.
Last night's victory was more than just three points: it firstly exorcised the demons of England's last competitive match prior to the current campaign, the truly despondent 2-3 defeat by the very same Croatian team at Wembley. It sent out a message to the European nations: yes, England can still mix it with the big boys - Croatia, strange though it seems, have somehow become a 'big boy'. But the performance was the biggest result: the team, and the coaching staff, got it totally right.
After a wobbly opening 20 minutes, England played with determination, courage and wit. To a man, they were forceful in their tackling and closing down, inventive with their passing and movement, and confident with the ball. The first goal naturally helped, particularly with David James once again looking shaky, but once they were ahead the English players never looked back. In the hostile surroundings of Maksimir Stadium, the internationals earned their shirts, earned back the fans' respect, and earned their manager the credit he deserved for his part.
Leaving out Michael Owen was not a good choice, and his presence on the bench may have been a more welcoming sight than Defore or Jenas, but in his first-eleven selections, Capello can congratulate himself for a flawless line-up. Heskey, so often the butt of jokes (including many of mine), was a colossal threat all night, starring in the lone striker role with his strength, aerial prowess and his glorious contribution to Walcott's second goal. Such a figurehead allowed Rooney, Joe Cole and Walcott to roam in the space between midfield and attack, a ploy which is undoubtedly Joe Cole's best position and also brings out the best in Rooney. It did last night, with Rooney banishing critics with a fantastic performance full of technique, vision and crucially, the elusive international goal. Joe Cole, too, was having an enjoyable game until he was cynically elbowed and the resulting blood-spurt injury saw him substituted. Lampard, with Barry as anchor and with less pressure on him to join in with the front four, had his best game in an England shirt for some time, and looked something like his Chelsea self.
But it was, of course, Theo Walcott who rightly stole the show and the headlines with a wonderful hat-trick that oozed with confidence and international class quality. Wenger knew all along, when snapping up the 16-year old Walcott from Southampton in 2006, that a future star was waiting to emerge from the exciting raw talent, but perhaps this potential was delayed in Walcott's early career. Sven, despite the fond memories looking back now, will never live down that ponderous World Cup selection, and it is only this season with Arsenal that Walcott has begun to show that his ability is up to scratch at the highest level. Being a Southampton fan, I'm over the moon for the boy.
As much as it's Walcott's man of the match though, those reading between the lines must applaud Fabio Capello for sticking with the 19-year old. He was hot and cold against Andorra, but Capello is clearly one to put his faith in individuals with the ability to affect matches. As one of the three attacking players behind Heskey, it was Walcott who was the most disciplined, holding a wide right position, running at players and finding space at key moments, as well as showing a deft knack for top class finishing. Walcott is a player who makes things happen, and as tempting as it must have been for Capello to go for the steady, safe bet in David Beckham, he is a coach who will trust his judgement to bring about results. And what an emphatic endorsement of his judgement the result was.
It was fitting when Walcott, wearing number 7, embraced David Beckham as the latter replaced the hat-trick hero for a cameo few minutes. It was almost as if something was passed between them, the torch from the old guard to the leading light of a new era of English football. Capello might not be the young upcoming coach that many would prefer to see in charge of this generation, but there can be no doubt now that, given time, he can be the coach to finally do justice to the nation's expectations.