Amid the raucous euphoria in the away dressing room at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb on Wednesday night there was a simple message for the players from the England manager, Fabio Capello: "It is right to enjoy tonight. But just for tonight. And then tomorrow forget about it."
The Italian's words stunned some of those present, given they came just moments after a famous 4-1 victory over Croatia, but, according to sources, it was another clear sign of the "winning mentality" that Capello intends to bring to the squad. And the sober way he is going about his job.
He went further, later saying that he believed Theo Walcott, England's match-winner, had scored "four goals on the night" – three on the pitch against Croatia and one in the post-match interviews in which the Arsenal striker also took a measured approach. Capello looked on approvingly and it confirmed the manager's belief that the 19-year-old has the maturity and intelligence to cope with playing a leading role for his country.
As with Walcott, Capello knows his team is a work in progress. There are still problems to resolve. He has helped rebuild confidence – a point made forcefully by a euphoric Frank Lampard – but as a source close to the manager said yesterday: "A winning mentality is not just two words."
Capello is happy, of course, with the six points gained from England's opening two World Cup qualification fixtures which mean they top Group Six on goal difference ahead of Ukraine. But he is also anxious to rein in expectation and the over-the-top assessments that always follow performances such as the one delivered by England and Walcott in Croatia.
Capello's speech to the players about facing Kazakhstan and Belarus next month, that he made immediately after defeating Croatia, revealed more about his ways. He believes the team is improving but he is also concerned that the confidence he has instilled may grow to over-confidence. It is not as if England have become world champions overnight and there is a danger in such a scoreline as was achieved against the fifth-ranked nation in the world.
Still there is only so much he can do. Given the travails of England's national team in recent years, a little celebration is to be expected and much of it will centre on Walcott. Capello was asked whether he had previously coached a young player who made such an impact – and he, inadvertently perhaps, added to the euphoria by naming just one: the Real Madrid striker Raul who also burst on to the scene at the age of 19.
At the same time Arsène Wenger, Walcott's club manager, cautioned against comparisons with Thierry Henry before adding of the player he bought from Southampton for £5m – a fee which could eventually rise to £12.5m – in January 2006: "He is on time [schedule]; he's playing in the national team at 19 years of age, but don't forget three months ago everybody questioned his quality and one month ago as well. There's still a lot to come. He's developed his first touch and commitment. From 19 to 23 you become a real man. At 19 he's still a boy."
On Wednesday, Walcott became the youngest England player to have scored a hat-trick and Wenger added: "What happened you have to consider to be an exception. Even for players of 25, 26 to score three goals in an international is a one-off. But what is very good is that he has the confidence of Capello and is playing at that level at 19. He's not the completely finished article yet, even on that front. I played with men at 16 or 17 and it's not easy. You go from a child's world to a man's world and you discover it's not as nice as you imagined it when you were a kid."
It is a fantasy world for Walcott, who arrived back to prepare for tomorrow's Premier League match away to Blackburn. Wenger said he would review the England game and speak to Walcott. "People want to see him on Saturday and expect him to score four goals. Football is not like that," the manager said. "Give him time. Knowing what happens in this country, the level of expectation will be too high. You have to be strong enough to deal with that. He's had that since he was 17."
Lampard said the victory had "put a marker down in the group. The manager has instilled a team ethic into us and that's where his big success has come from in the past. He's worked with fantastic players, but he's very strong on team and discipline, and we showed there wasn't one player playing for himself or playing at his highest level. We worked as a group and we got the rewards. We are building a bit as a team because we were at a low point, having not qualified for the Euros. We haven't performed for the last two years or something as a group, every player will probably admit that and now it's about regaining confidence."
David Beckham – who lost out against Andorra and Croatia in the starting line-up, with Walcott preferred – claimed he wanted to be involved with the squad even if he was not in the first choice XI.
"I don't care whether I play or not," said the 32-year-old, who won his 105th cap. "As long as England win that is the most important thing for me. I was happy to get on in both games and would have liked to play more, but it's all about the team and the squad and qualifying for the World Cup, and I really don't care if I play or not."
The downside for England came with the racial abuse aimed at Emile Heskey. The Football Association said yesterday it would complain to Fifa about the behaviour of Croatia fans. "It is unacceptable for anyone to be subjected to racial abuse and we will be asking Fifa to investigate," the FA said. The Croatian FA claimed it was an isolated incident caused by a small group of supporters.
What Croatia's papers said
Croatia's media poured lavish praise on a reinvigorated England yesterday and their new manager Fabio Capello, who gave Slaven Bilic a humiliating lesson on the eve of his 40th birthday...
* "Capello has outwitted Bilic. It was payback time, and some," yesterday's Jutarnji List daily said after England's 4-1 victory in the World Cup Group Six qualifier in Zagreb.
* Croatia beat England twice in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, costing the team a place at the finals and their manager Steve McClaren his job. "This is not McClaren's England. This is a powerful team, at the moment stronger and better than Croatia," Jutarnji List added.
* "Hats off, Mr Capello," said a headline in another popular daily, Vecernji List. "Fabio the Great has humiliated Bilic on the eve of his birthday."
* Bilic, who took over Croatia in 2006, is hugely popular in his own country but his relative lack of coaching experience was perceived to have taken its toll. "The wily Don Fabio has shown Bilic and our boys that they need some additional education. Bilic is highly talented but still needs to fully master the trade," Vecernji List said.
* Croatia's defeat prompted calls for a reshuffle of the squad's ageing defence, in particular Robert and Niko Kovac, both in their thirties. "They are obviously not superfit... Bilic could starting thinking about new blood," Vecernji List suggested.
Wednesday's results: Andorra 1 Belarus 3; Croatia 1 England 4; Kazakhstan 1 Ukraine 3.
England's remaining fixtures: 11 Oct Kazakhstan (h); 15 Oct Belarus (a); 1 April 2009 Ukraine (h); 6 June Kazakhstan (a); 10 June Andorra (h); 9 Sept Croatia (h); 10 Oct Ukraine (a); 14 Oct Belarus (h).Reuse content