Like a club side more than satisfied with their season's work, England's players were happy to perform a slow walk round the Wembley pitch following their last game, against Andorra on Wednesday. There were even thousands left in the stands to return their applause, once it had become evident that all the fuss about travel difficulties had been exaggerated; the Jubilee Line serving Wembley Park ran all day, shooting through north London as efficiently as Fabio Capello's men bisected the Andorran defence.
Similar scenes should ensue in 12 months' time, though the excitable stadium announcer might perhaps be advised to tone down any triumphalism ahead of what will almost certainly be a waving-off of the squad to South Africa. It can be predicted with equal confidence that Capello will not be leading the crowd, or players, in a rendition of that famous old Scotland anthem from 1978: "Ole, ola! We're gonna bring the World Cup back from over tha'!"
For all his improving English, Capello relied on his translator late on Wednesday night to confirm: "I keep my feet on the ground always. I am very realistic." It is a philosophy that has served him and the country well and was most notable in the aftermath of his most stunning result, the 4-1 success against Steve McClaren's nemesis, Croatia, last autumn. "It's only one victory" was as excited as the manager allowed himself to become afterwards, and the numerous survivors among his squad from previous anti-climactic tournaments have taken to echoing their master's voice.
One of the most extraordinary facets of that result – demoralising Croatia so much that they subsequently failed to win either match against Ukraine – was that it came a mere three weeks after England had been subjected to isolated boos for scrambling a draw at Wembley in the first game of the season.
The Czech Republic led for almost 70 minutes on that occasion and were only denied in added time when Joe Cole equalised after a performance that Harry Redknapp described on television as "awful". Steven Gerrard, Redknapp claimed, was being "killed" out on the left by Capello, who explained that actually Gerrard was playing alongside Wayne Rooney, just behind the main striker.
After giving a couple of games to Jermain Defoe, Capello has made Emile Heskey his first choice in that forward role and that is the way it will stay as long as the Aston Villa forward maintains form and fitness – goals appear to be an optional extra – during next season. Peter Crouch could have done himself a lot of good against Andorra but he became frustrated during a niggling feud with the defender Ildefons Lima and missed an opportunity as well as a number of scoring chances.
What that emphasised was how important Rooney will be next summer, when England will need the irresistible force of Euro 2004 rather than the injury-stricken accident waiting to happen of the last World Cup. As only three other strikers will be taken, Crouch and Heskey need a good season to be on the plane as the target men ahead of Carlton Cole.
After a season of nine wins in 11 games, and defeat only away to the European champions Spain (emphatic as it was), it is difficult, however, to see many changes in personnel over the next 12 months. A number of players from the Under-21 squad will be hoping to push their credentials in the next fortnight, though Capello has already looked at most of the candidates in training if not in full internationals.
The goalkeeper Joe Hart has as much chance as any of them, since that position is still open, the three squad places apparently dependent on fitness as much as form. Like everyone else, he will need to be playing regularly throughout next season, in his case at a new club.
Wes Brown will hope for a campaign free from injury to establish himself first at right-back for Manchester United and then as a rival again to Glen Johnson, who must continue developing the defensive skills to match his attacking prowess.
If there is one player little seen so far who could have an impact in 12 months' time it is Ashley Young, a wide player with pace and a trick or two. David Beckham must therefore hope that either Young or Shaun Wright-Phillips have an unconvincing season if he is to go to his fourth World Cup.
There will be no Andorras waiting there.
Possible squad for South Africa
Goalkeepers: David James, Robert Green, Joe Hart.
Full-backs: Glen Johnson, Ashley Cole, Wes Brown, Wayne Bridge.
Centre-backs: John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jagielka, Matthew Upson.
Midfielders: Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Joe Cole, Ashley Young.
Forwards: Wayne Rooney, Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe.Reuse content