While it is too early to proclaim Kevin Keegan as a managerial Merlin, England's relatively comfortable victory over Poland on Saturday, in the first match since the Football Association bought Wembley, was a blessed relief after months of faltering and haphazard progress. For most of the match England appeared to have a sense of organisation, belief and purpose which has not always been the case in recent performances.
If they were sometimes anxious, especially after the Poles pulled the score back to 2-1, that was only understandable given the results and events which have followed the World Cup. So, too, were the moments of indecision.
The back four had never played together as a unit, the front pair had had 25 inconsequential minutes at the tail end of the home defeat by France, and the midfield included a debutant as anchor and a left winger who had not played for his country since May and had barely done so for his club.
Much of this was imposed by injuries to seven original squad members but, as Keegan has quickly discovered, these are the realities of international football and England coped with their problems well enough. It may not have been a five-star performance but England deserved their win - which is more than could be said last time they played the Poles at Wembley, in Glenn Hoddle's second match, two years and five months ago.
Then Alan Shearer saved England, this time it was Paul Scholes who achieved England's first hat-trick since Ian Wright scored four goals against San Marino in Graham Taylor's final game, more than five years ago. Appropriately enough, Sir Geoff Hurst was in the audience.
Scholes' treble illustrated the importance of the crucial factor which has been absent from recent England performances - confidence. When he is in form he appears one of the most natural finishers in the game but, when Manchester United faced Internazionale in Milan 12 days ago, he had gone three months and a dozen appearances without a goal. Then Andy Cole nodded the ball down to him with two minutes left and, from a relatively simple tap-in, his confidence blossomed again.
Exaggeration? There is no guarantee he would have converted his first chance at Wembley, a neat flick over the keeper requiring instant judgement and high technical ability, if he had not scored in Milan. His finishing may appear instinctive but the timing had to be perfect, not rushed, not delayed.
As with Scholes, so with the team. At times England looked stretched and uncertain but between Scholes' opener and the Poles' reply, and once the game was safe, they looked an assured international side. That was the impression they gave in the Wembley tunnel afterwards.
After the goalless draw with Bulgaria in their last home European Championship tie, most had walked hurriedly past, heads bowed, keen to avoid eye contact and conversation. This time they were happy to talk, their eyes glowing with confidence. The only quiet one was Scholes who is rarely comfortable in the public eye and conducted a series of diffident interviews. Other filled the breach. As Cole said: "He doesn't like to blow his own trumpet so we'll blow it for him. He's a special player."
Keegan now needs to maintain this momentum through the friendly in Hungary, for which he expects to field an experimental team, to the double-header against Sweden and Bulgaria in June. Though it would add to the demands upon them, Keegan is aware that it it will help his cause if Manchester United go on to lift the European Cup; the confidence this will give the United players, five of whom figured on Saturday, is immeasureable. Success in Europe has already broadened Cole's shoulders. Admittedly, he did not score, and he received heavy criticism in some quarters for this, but he did get in good positions and, even more importantly, looked capable of forming a genuine partnership with Shearer. They certainly linked better than Shearer has with Michael Owen despite 11 matches together, seven from the start. Injuries will probably decide the issue for him but one wonders who Keegan will play against Hungary, and how Cole and Owen would fare together? For the present he said he "believed" in the Cole-Shearer partnership and anticipates them scoring as well as making goals.
Both he and Shearer seemed to flourish from being under Keegan and their interplay, from Graeme Le Saux's deep free-kick, led to Scholes' first goal, though he actually got the ball from a ricochet off a Polish defender. Cole was also involved in the second, releasing David Beckham down the right for a typically whipped cross which Scholes diverted in off arm and face. It was impossible to tell if the hand-ball was intended but, had it been seen, the goal should have been disallowed.
An Old Trafford goal but so was the next, for Poland. Gary Neville was beaten by Miroslaw Trzeciak on the flank and Scholes was a yard short at tracking back as Jerzy Brzeczek scored.
Shearer took over the role of provider for Scholes' third, flicking on Gary Neville's long throw for Scholes, again timing his run well, to head in off his ginger nut. Said Keegan: "My only instruction to him was one Bill Shankly gave me: 'Go out and drop hand grenades'." Keegan used to say the same to Peter Beardsley at Newcastle.
That settled the match though Poland had rarely looked like getting a second. Though the full-backs were below par Sol Campbell and Martin Keown were excellent defensively - if only one of them could distribute the ball like Rio Ferdinand. In front of them Tim Sherwood made a promising debut and, given their superiority, England could carry Steve McManaman whose performance, perhaps inevitably given his preparation, was disappointing. He needs the challenges his move to Real Madrid will bring, though one wonders how often he will play.
Keegan, whose final post-match debriefing was interrupted by a congratulatory telephone call from Prince Andrew, added: "I enjoyed it. I came with that intention and it was a lot of fun. It won't always be like that as you are judged on results but I had a feeling we'd perform."
Having barely put a foot wrong all week it was no surprise that he was right.
Goals: Scholes (11) 1-0; Scholes (22) 2-0; Brzeczek (28) 2-1; Scholes (70) 3-1.
ENGLAND (4-4-2): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Manchester Utd), Keown (Arsenal), Campbell (Tottenham Hotspur), Le Saux (Chelsea); Beckham (Manchester Utd), Sherwood (Tottenham Hotspur), Scholes (Manchester Utd), McManaman (Liverpool); Shearer (Newcastle Utd), Cole (Manchester Utd). Substitutes: Parlour (Arsenal) for McManaman, 70; P Neville (Manchester Utd) for Beckham, 77; Redknapp (Liverpool) for Scholes, 84.
POLAND (3-5-1-1): Matysek (Bayer Leverkusen); Ratajczyk (Rapid Vienna), Lapinski (Widzew Lodz), Zielinski (Legi Warsaw); Hajto (MSV Duisburg), Swierczewski (Gamba Osaka), Bak (Lyons), Brzeczek (Maccabi Haifa), Siadaczka (Austria Vienna); Iwan (PSV Eindhoven); Trezciak (Osasuna). Substitutes: Michalski (Widzew Lodz) for Swierczewski, h-t; Kowalczyk (Las Palmas) for Siadaczka, 67; Juskowiak for Trezciak (VfL Wolfsburg), 84.
Referee: M V Melo Pereira (Portugal). Bookings: England: Scholes, Sherwood.
Poland: Ratajczyk, Hajto.
Man of the match: Scholes.
TEN ENGLAND GOALSCORING FEATS
GEOFF HURST - scored the most famous England hat-trick of all in the 4-2 victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley.
GARY LINEKER - scored four goals against Spain in February 1987 and against Malaysia in June 1991. Claimed hat-tricks against Turkey in October 1985, against Poland in the 1986 Mexico World Cup finals and v Turkey again in October 1987.
WILLIE HALL - scored five against Ireland at Old Trafford on November 16, 1938, including the fastest international hat-trick (completed in three minutes).
MALCOLM MACDONALD - scored all five in a 5-0 win against Cyprus at Wembley on April 16, 1975.
OLIVER VAUGHTON - scored five in a 13-0 win against Ireland in Belfast in 1882.
BOBBY CHARLTON - four hat-tricks for his country against the United States in 1959, Luxembourg 1960, Mexico 1961 and Switzerland in 1963.
DAVID PLATT - the last England player before Scholes to score a Wembley hat-trick, claiming four against international minnows San Marino in a 6-0 World Cup qualifying win at Wembley in 1992.
VIVIAN WOODWARD - scored seven in a 15-0 win against France in an amateur international in Paris in 1906 and six in a 9-1 amateur win against the Netherlands in 1909.
IAN WRIGHT - the last England player before Scholes to score a hat-trick, Wright claimed four in a 7-1 World Cup qualifying win against San Marino in Bologna in 1993.
STEVE BLOOMER - scored five in a 9-1 win against Wales in Cardiff in 1896.Reuse content