Stage one of Sven Goran Eriksson's mission is accomplished. England are no longer the sick dog of European football.
Whether this rehabilitation can be translated into a serious prospect of victory over Germany in Munich in September and a real chance of qualifying automatically for next year's World Cup finals is rather a different matter. But certain things have been achieved, and they run more deeply than the eye-catching statistic that England's 2-0 win here over Greece gives Eriksson the most successful ever start as a guardian of the nation's football dreams with a fifth straight victory. There is a knack to winning which isn't all about the sum of your skills, and the Swede seems to have implanted it.
England no longer unravel. They do not turn in on themselves, they do not become gutted by introspection. They get on with it.
This no doubt will be Eriksson's chief satisfaction from a vital but at times discordant success. The run of wins, two of them meaningless friendlies, three of them sometimes fraught triumphs over allegedly lesser football nations, in themselves may not point to the birth of an empire. Eriksson may also know that the England coach who went the distance, who won it all, lost his first game, to France, 5-2. But then Sir Alf Ramsey knew his objectives clearly enough. He wanted to build faith in the nucleus of his team, and he was not a man to be turned by the odd vicissitude. Eriksson, this side of such a setback, suggests that he may be a man of a similar stamp.
If England's football was less than unrelenting last night, it never lacked for patience or the sense that they had players on the field who were not likely to be posted missing in action. Rio Ferdinand had one anxious moment, retrieved by his young colleague Ashley Cole, but his work at times touched new levels of authority.
Paul Scholes produced another vital goal, David Beckham again forced himself on a game in a way which wasn't always so noticeable in a long and under-achieving domestic season, Steven Gerrard had some impressive moments, and there were times when the Anfield combination of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen seemed mere half-strides away from passages of play which would surely have destroyed the Greeks.
Add up these separate parts and it could be seen that England are indeed a promising work in progress. That they are some way from the finished article was evident enough before Beckham finally brought relief to Eriksson with a trademark free-kick in the last minutes, but then it was also true that England could again leave the field with the satisfaction of seeing a job through and in this case with rather more authority than they displayed in the face of a late eruption of Albanian menace back in April.
There were similar distractions in the form of missile-throwing Greek fans, but once Scholes had attached himself to the end of a cross-come-shot from Emile Heskey in the 64th minute the worst of Eriksson's concerns were surely over.
What he will be weighing most acutely now are the rival claims of Heskey and Steve McManaman on the left side of midfield. Somewhat surprisingly, he preferred the big Liverpool man at the start despite the sense that Heskey's prodigious labours on behalf of his club had brought a distinct staleness with the end of the season. He made a flying start, then subsided before his crucial contribution to the breakthrough goal, which required him to run at a wall of Greek defenders before delivering the ball to Scholes. When McManaman appeared as a subsitute, he promptly skewered the confidence of the marking Dimitris Mavrogenidis with a delicious sleight of foot. Neither man, however, made an unanswerable case for a permanent place in the caravan moving, by one route or another, to the World Cup.
Indeed, this could be the window of glowing opportunity for the Bayern Munich prodigy Owen Hargreaves. That Eriksson should find a place for a 20-year-old who marched through a semi-final and final of the Champions League as though such challenges were his life's vocation seems inevitable. Certainly Hargreaves is the most inviting of options for a coach whose clear priority is to have players operating on an international field as though it is their natural terrain.
For so long, England were a group of players in search of something which seemed utterly elusive; a sense of team, and continuity.
Though the performance was less than tumultuous, though there were moments when you had to worry about the force of England's momentum, in the end thread was preserved. England won another game, took another step away from the abyss which opened up a year ago in the European championships. Another win is another win. It is also habit-forming.Reuse content