The wretched days of the Jabulani were removed from the mind in every way the Football Association could think of, even to the point of adorning last night's match ball with the flag of St George. One of the questions of the occasion was how Theo Walcott might manage to manipulate it.
A lot of water has run under the bridge since that May day on his local Brocket Hall golf course when Walcott's mobile phone chirruped and the call he was expecting to confirm his World Cup destiny instead destroyed it. But while you sense that the others who missed out this summer had gained from going untainted by the events of the tournament, Walcott has not. He still invites so many questions that you could be forgiven for thinking that it was he, not Aaron Lennon or Shaun Wright Phillips, who failed to deliver from the flanks back in June. While Joe Hart was declaring of the England camp earlier this week that "the spirit is a lot fresher now. It a whole lot different; exciting times", Walcott, across the same room, was left struggling to find some kind of riposte – and he certainly does struggle with putdowns – for those who question the presence, or lack of, a footballing brain in that head of his. He wanted to suggest he had a tough side but could not quite bring himself to say so. "I think you can be nice off the pitch and yet..." and he tailed off.
For quite some time last night, he really needed to be find a tough side – for those team-mates who variously fired high balls over his 5ft 9in frame into touch or else did not spot him at all. There was a moment, six minutes before half time when James Milner, running left to right into the Bulgaria area, only had eyes for Jermain Defoe, standing right in front of him, when Walcott was waiting, unmarked. There was barely more than a shrug from Walcott.
The timing was disappointing because the 21-year-old, who thrives on surges of confidence, had only just started to offer evidence of what he can deliver when he is fired by the self-belief which has so clearly has been restored in him in the domestic season. Collecting the ball rolled into his path by Glen Johnson 15 yards out, Walcott glided into an easy, fast, quick-footed run past Stanislav Angelov into the area, conjuring images of what he managed in Zagreb's Stadion Maksimir on that night – exactly two years ago on Friday – when his hat-trick marked him out as the most exciting prospect of his generation.
This time, Walcott's clipped cross landed in the roof of the net. It was the singular piece of skill in that first half to take the breath away and when he exchanged passes with Johnson and threaded a low ball into Defoe's feet, there was a sense that the game was about to explode for him.
It didn't. England's right flank contained this match's finest attacking wide players, in Johnson and Walcott, but their partnership did not elicit much more. Fabio Capello had no reason to berate himself for omitting Walcott in June. Wayne Rooney found Walcott unmarked on the right hand side of the box but he fired badly wide. Walcott strode into the box and struck the ball striaght at the goalkeeper.
Lee Dixon, who has watched Walcott at Arsenal more than most, observes that the wingers he came to fear most were those who mixed up their game. Players like Marc Overmars, playing for the Netherlands, and John Barnes who would drop sometimes deep to collect the ball and sometimes wait high up for it. Walcott certainly lacked that unpredictability and the habit of demanding – or else going hunting for the ball – which has made Adam Johnson such a menace this season.
Having arrived in Walcott's place, Johnson had been on the field for 10 minutes when, advancing on the opposite side of the pitch from a marauding Rooney, he held up his hand, demanding the pass. He received it and curled a shot narrowly wide. Two minutes later he found the net. A few more private agonies for Walcott; a few more reasons to throw his weight around more.