There were just four minutes separating Steve McClaren from some kind of football salvation but once he comes to terms with Rafael van der Vaart's 86th-minute equaliser he will realise the real significance of the night lay elsewhere. There is no shame in drawing with the Dutch, but the foreboding news from England's Euro 2008 Group E was that results have left them in third spot and out of the qualification places.
Two days in the Amsterdam hotel that John Lennon made famous and McClaren may have begun to feel that he was on the brink of becoming English football's nowhere man. From the agony of that dreadful night in Zagreb last month, England resurrected something that approached football coherence last night and, through Wayne Rooney's first goal for his country in more than a year, they almost left Amsterdam with their first win over the Netherlands since Euro '96.
Nearly, but not quite. In the moments after the Dutch goal, John Terry appeared to vent his fury at Paul Robinson for his failure to claim Arjen Robben's long throw that broke free and fell to Van der Vaart to equalise but, heaven knows, the England goalkeeper has had worst nights than this. Yet even a victory would have not lessened the scale of the wider challenge facing England over the next 18 months.
"I asked for a performance, that's what we wanted and that's what we got," said McClaren, and who could begrudge him a little bit of sunshine after such a miserable month? Among the BBC studio pundits, McClaren found himself taken to task for wasting Andrew Johnson on the right side of a 4-3-3 formation. Certainly, it did not look that desperate from the stands.
"I couldn't see any negatives about the system and the game plan," the England manager said. What lies ahead for England is far more important and, against Spain on 7 February, McClaren might well experiment with his team again as they face up to the task of re-establishing themselves in Group E. Yesterday, Guus Hiddink's Russia beat Macedonia 2-0, while Croatia won 4-3 in Israel - these are two formidable opponents that stand in England's way. "Twists and turns," is the whimsical way in which McClaren now likes to describe the progress of the group but it promises to be much harsher than that.
"We are three points behind Croatia and we have to play them at home, we are a point behind Russia and we are yet to play them," McClaren said. "I still say we are in a good position in the group. There are some twists and turns to come and I don't think we will know [the likely outcome] until we are four games from the end."
What more did McClaren learn last night? That this is a better England team with Joe Cole in it; he struck the cross for Rooney's goal and he is the greatest provider from the wing now that David Beckham has been cast into the international wilderness. At right-back, Micah Richards had a harsh international rites of passage from Robben and, when they switched, Van der Vaart too, but the 18-year-old did enough to show there is genuine promise.
The 4-3-3 system did not set Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard free but, after all this time, what will? McClaren was right to say that "with the amount of chances we created we should have won the game," and Gerrard in particular was profligate. A stray backpass from Khalid Boulahrouz in the 13th minute could have been finished and he had another opportunity after the Dutch goal.
Johnson was lively and this was certainly far from the torrid experience he endured marooned on the right in another Netherlands friendly under Sven Goran Eriksson in February last year at Villa Park. It was the Everton striker who drew three defenders to the near post when Joe Cole crossed from the left on 28 minutes, the loose ball looped to Rooney who bizarrely elected to head weakly rather than pull it down and shoot.
There have been lean times indeed for Rooney in an England shirt. The last time the 21-year-old hit the net was in the 3-2 victory over Argentina in Geneva on 12 November last year. His broken metatarsal notwithstanding, the 12th England goal of Rooney's career has been a long time coming.
It was from a Joe Cole cross again, this time from the right, that swept low into the Dutch six-yard box. As a group of players converged, Rooney simply threw himself at the ball and guided it inside goalkeeper Henk Timmer's left post with a stray leg. It was not beautiful but for this England team, any goal will do.
"I said before the game that the exciting thing was the form of the players and Wayne Rooney in particular," McClaren said. "Everyone saw five or six weeks ago his confidence and self-belief, now he has scored a hat-trick [against Bolton] and again tonight - his performance was back to the old Wayne Rooney."
The long throw that spoilt it all was, McClaren said "the disappointment" of the night. Rio Ferdinand tussled with the substitute Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, Terry was cut out as the ball looped over him and Michael Carrick and Ashley Cole made a hash of the clearance. Amid all that, Robinson came for the ball and then went back. It was not a moment to settle the argument over the England goalkeeper's suitability to be No 1.
On the criticism that has been heaped upon him since Zagreb, McClaren protested indifference. "I'm not really bothered by that - it is more the team, the performance and the result," he said. "It doesn't bother me what people say about me, my only concern is this job, making England perform like they did tonight and winning football matches." It is achieving the last part that will make his life easier.
Netherlands (4-3-1-2): Timmer (Feyenoord); Boulahrouz (Chelsea), Ooijer (Blackburn), Mathijsen (Hamburg), Emanuelson (Ajax); Landzaat (Wigan), Schaars (AZ Alkmaar), Seedorf (Milan); Van der Vaart (Hamburg); Kuyt (Liverpool), Robben (Chelsea). Substitutes: Stekelenburg (Ajax) for Timmer, h-t; Jaliens (AZ Alkmaar) for Boulahrouz, 60; Huntelaar (Ajax) for Kuyt, 60; Vennegoor of Hesselink (Celtic) for Ooijer, 83.
England (4-3-3): Robinson (Tottenham); Richards (Manchester City), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Chelsea); Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea), Carrick (Manchester United); Johnson (Everton), Rooney (Manchester United), J Cole (Chelsea). Substitutes: Wright-Phillips (Chelsea) for Johnson, 73; Richardson (Manchester United) for J Cole, 77.
Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).
England man-for-man marking: Who made his mark and who didn't in Amsterdam. By Nick Harris
Decent night until he failed to come out for long throw that led to the Dutch equaliser. Made good saves from Robben, Kuyt and Van der Vaart. 6/10
Fine debut, going head to head with Robben all night. Calm start, then his confidence grew, as did his attacking runs. Almost scored. 6.5
A mixed bag. Allowed Robben to slip passes past him early on, and then failed to pick up Van der Vaart. Made some good clearances and one vital block. 5
Took an early knock after landing badly making a back header that almost went in his own net. Things could only get better for the Chelsea defender. Steady, no more. 5
Early forays not sustained as Dutch distractions, notably Landzaat, took his attention. More mop-up man than marauder. 5
McClaren's formation gave him licence to roam but a weak shot when clean through on the keeper and a first-half burst of creativity aside, Gerrard failed to stamp his authority. Late shot, after jinking through the Dutch defence, saved. 5
Uncertain for long periods, taking back-pass options when in possession. Twice gave the ball to Seedorf, allowing the Dutch to create chances. Lashed one shot wide in the second half. 5
Might have made a spectacular contribution in the 19th minute if his first touch had been better during a run on goal. Did not impose himself on the game. 5
Hardly touched the ball at the start, but a switch from left to right kick-started some dangerous moments, topped by a delicious cross for Rooney's goal. 6.5
The Manchester United forward had to drop so deep to get the ball early on in the proceedings he should have worn a headlamp. Super goal with his heel. Did OK in a drab match. 6
Poor awareness during an England attack in the ninth minute meant no square pass to Rooney in space. A right-sided role, not central, which did not suit the Everton striker. Underwhelming. 5
Came on for Johnson, 73. Little time to make an impact as the Dutch upped their game in search of equaliser. 4
Came on for Cole, 77. Same scenario as for Wright-Phillips. 4Reuse content