Half-time: 0-0 Att: 65,239
Half-time: 0-0 Att: 65,239
When Sven Goran Eriksson described the physical strength of Wayne Rooney on Saturday evening, the England coach abandoned words and resorted to a gesture instead, flexing his narrow shoulders in the manner of an old-fashioned circus strongman. It was one of those rare moments when you witnessed a touch of humour about the Swede, but also the true depth of his awe and gratitude for the priceless gift of the teenage footballer who has become England's crowning glory.
Rooney was again the raging bull in England's line-up who eventually ripped from its hinges the noble resistance of the visitors from Crewe and Plymouth and Hull with a force that would have done for far more accomplished sides. A respectable margin of victory is hard to establish against opponents who lost their previous match to Canada but, in Rooney, England can point to at least one unmitigated success story.
The tale of the rest of the afternoon is simply not so clear. Few sporting nations would have reason to find quite so much doubt in a 4-0 World Cup qualifier home victory, but then this England team is in a long and, at times, painful period of refinement ahead of what could be its greatest chance in decades of becoming world champions. And although Northern Ireland were eventually overcome with a flurry of knock-out punches after 45 minutes of cautious jabbing, there was enough in England's performance to suggest that there remain fundamental problems in this side.
It will, of course, be impossible ever to have a debate about the England future of David Beckham without it descending into a hysterical indictment of his life off the pitch. He still has something to offer England, but with no discernible width in the team it has become evident that they are struggling to break down even the most modest opponents. They looked their most dangerous when Rooney drifted out to the wing and forced his way behind the Irish defence, which would be the remit of a more orthodox winger such as Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Beckham has surprised us before with his capability for self-renewal, but it would be difficult to argue that Joe Cole, operating on the left side of England's midfield, would have been worth a recall had he offered as little as his captain. Beckham is still struggling with a back problem that should not prevent him from playing against Azerbaijan on Wednesday, but at Old Trafford turned the mind to contemplate an awkward question: would Beckham be prepared to go to Germany next summer without the guarantee of a starting role?
As he laboured on the right, the most significant contribution for England from that flank in the first half came from Gary Neville, whose whipped cross on 19 minutes was headed against the post by Rooney.
When finally they scored, on 47 minutes, a goal stroked home by Joe Cole after Tony Capaldi had gifted possession to the Chelsea man in the area, England regained their sense of status and nothing was quite so difficult again. They scored again on 52 minutes when Rooney's exchange with Frank Lampard allowed Michael Owen to prod home his 29th international goal.
Then two minutes later the teenager picked his way past Capaldi and Colin Murdock from a deeply unpromising position out to the right on the goalline. It was a combination of what he does best: turning, stopping and then accelerating out of a tangle of lunging boots to cut back a cross that Chris Baird hopelessly directed into his own net.
The fourth was Lampard's after the hour, a shot deflected in off Murdock that reflected another fine contribution from the Chelsea midfielder. Another tactical sub-plot to the role of Beckham and the suitability of Joe Cole on the left has become the compatibility of Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the centre of midfield. There may not be a natural defensive instinct between them, but it suggests the worst kind of ingratitude to complain that this England team has not been blessed with two of the finest midfielders in the world.
In that department, at least, Eriksson can sleep easy. Games like these are the blank canvases of international football in that they offer the chance to examine the England team playing uninhibited, without having to adapt itself to combat an opponent's specific strengths. The only decisions left to Eriksson now are those of the very biggest variety, and they will inevitably deal with the future of Beckham.
England (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham Hotspur) ; G Neville, Ferdinand (both Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Arsenal); Beckham (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), Gerrard (Liverpool), J Cole (Chelsea); Rooney (Manchester United), Owen (Real Madrid). Substitutes used: Dyer (Newcastle United) for Beckham, 72; Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) for Gerrard, 72; Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur) for Rooney, 80.
Northern Ireland (4-5-1): Taylor (Birmingham City); Baird (Southampton), Hughes (Newcastle United), Murdock (Crewe Alexandra), Capaldi (Plymouth Argyle); Gillespie (Leicester City), Whitley (Sunderland), Johnson (Birmingham City), Doherty (Bristol City), Elliott (Hull City); Healy (Leeds United). Substitutes used: Davis (Aston Villa) for Doherty, 59; Kirk (Northampton Town) for Healy, 87; Jones (Crewe Alexandra) for Whitley, 87.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).
Man of the match: Rooney.Reuse content