Steve McClaren cannot yet claim to be the saviour of the England football team but last night he ensured that the little optimism that clings to his new regime will at least last longer than a Mancunian summer. There were familiar grey clouds over Old Trafford but on the pitch a little light to assuage the dire memories of the World Cup finals that are burnt on the psyche of every English football fan.
The England team that scored four goals in 42 minutes, led by their captain John Terry who headed the first, were only three men different to the team that staggered out the World Cup quarter-finals to Portugal 46 days earlier. At times in that first half, however, it was possible to believe in a fundamental transformation. There were two goals from Peter Crouch and partial redemption for Frank Lampard, who scored the second.
It was the first small step on a journey that has, history tells us, so often ended with England's thwarted dreams, but for a manager whose appointment has been accompanied by so little optimism it at least bought McClaren time. Not since Walter Winterbottom's regime began with a 7-2 defeat of Northern Ireland in 1946 has there been a better start for an England manager and this time it came against a team which only two years ago achieved an unlikely victory at Euro 2004.
An England that passes the ball and converts its chances is a rare, precious thing and McClaren will know that sustaining this momentum over the course of the next two years will be no simple task. on 11 October in Zagreb his team face Croatia, a nation who travelled to Italy last night and beat the world champions 2-0. On the evidence of England's performance the support might even dare to dream, if recent experience did not counsel so strongly against it.
At the heart of all that was good was a familiar face in the No 7 shirt, Owen Hargreaves assuming the symbolic shirt of the departed David Beckham and the stewardship of the midfield. "The standard for the other two" was how McClaren described the Bayern Munich man and with that he suggested that Hargreaves is, at the very least, on an equal footing with Lampard and Steven Gerrard in his brave new world.
There was another tale to be told in Gerrard's performance, because he of the knitted brow and worried outlook appeared changed by his relocation to the right wing. Those dashing forward runs no longer carried with them grave risk. Gerrard was liberated.
Just 45,864 were in the 76,000-capacity Old Trafford, although in the Football Association's defence that was England's best ever August friendly attendance. As the famously incontinent Manchester skies opened up before kick-off, it felt very far from a new dawn.
At times like these a manager hopes for some kind of deliverance and for McClaren it came from his captain. On 15 minutes, Terry headed in the first goal of the McClaren regime and it seemed to free England to play in a way they had scarcely approached in Germany, which put them four goals ahead by half-time.
Crouch had already raised the mood in Old Trafford when, in his tireless work for possession, he executed two stepovers and won a throw-in. His header from a free-kick was punched out as far as Downing, who nodded the ball firmly back into the area and Terry applied enough contact to direct it past Antonios Nikopolidis. It was a precious moment for the new captain, who planted a kiss on his armband in celebration.
Alongside Crouch, it was Jermain Defoe who impressed, a striker with the directness to keep England's breaks moving forward at pace. On 29 minutes, he played in Lampard and as the Chelsea man closed in on goal his deflected shot looped over Nikopolidis.
In the space of seven minutes Crouch added two more. First when Defoe had drilled a low ball in the left Crouch slipped the loose ball into the net, then, three minutes before half-time, he made the bizarre choice, with the goal at his mercy, to duck under a Gary Neville cross from the right after Gerrard and then Defoe had worked the ball out to the wing. Possession was recycled on the left and Crouch planted his header low past a stranded Nikolopidis.
For a team that had managed only six goals in the entire World Cup finals this was proving a rare display. Before Crouch scored his second, he was inches from a low ball from the right flank from Gerrard.
There were no more goals, although Aaron Lennon, Darren Bent and Kieran Richardson all came on. For the time being, however, it will have been the reassertion of their powers by England's so-called golden generation that will have lifted McClaren.
England (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham); G Neville (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), Ferdinand (Manchester United), A Cole (Arsenal); Gerrard (Liverpool), Hargreaves (Bayern Munich), Lampard (Chelsea), Downing (Middlesbrough); Defoe (Tottenham), Crouch (Liverpool). Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk, Wigan) for Robinson, h-t; Richardson (Manchester United) for Defoe, 69; Lennon (Tottenham) for Downing, 69; Carragher (Liverpool) for Neville, 79; Bent (Charlton) for Gerrard, 79; Bridge (Chelsea) for A Cole, 81.
Greece (4-4-2): Nikopolidis (Olympiakos); Antzas (Xanthi), Dellas (AEK Athens), Katsouranis (Benfica), Fyssas (Hearts),; Vyntra (Panathinaikos), Zagorakis (PAOK), Karagounis (Benfica), Giannakopoulos (Bolton); Samaras (Manchester City), Charisteas (Ajax). Substitutes used: Lagos (AEK) for Fyssas, 29; Kyrgiakos (Eintracht Frankfurt) for Ansaas, h-t; Basinas (Real Mallorca) for Zagorakis, h-t; Amanatidis (Eintracht Frankfurt) for Samaras, h-t; Salpigidis (PAOK) for Giannakopoulos, h-t; Anatolakis (Olympiakos) for Dellas, 65.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).
Family windfall Kirkland's £10,000 substitution
With England 4-0 to the good at half-time, manager Steve McClaren made only one change during the interval, a change that brought a welcome financial gain for the family of Chris Kirkland. When the 25-year-old Wigan Athletic goalkeeper came on for his first international cap in place of the Tottenham Hotspur keeper Paul Robinson, a smile must have flashed across the face of his father, Eddie. And the reason is 12 years ago Kirkland Snr placed a £100 bet on his son playing for England. Last night that bet was realised and he can now look forward to sharing a £10,000 windfall with six friends.
* Macedonia made a winning start to the European Championship qualifying campaign with a 1-0 away win over Estonia in Group E last night. Goce Sedloski scored in the 73rd minute when he found space to shoot past Mart Poom. Macedonia, who play England on 6 September, applied pressure with some free-flowing football. Croatia, Russia, Israel and Andorra complete the group.Reuse content