For so long, Wales were right back there in the '70s, daring to relive that fantasy of their one – and only – glory at Wembley. But then a final whistle brought their Life on Mars moment to a very abrupt halt. And so they fell back to earth, back to here and now.
It isn't all ashes to ashes, however. Anything but. Indeed, but for Robert Earnshaw they would have headed back west last night in something resembling wild celebration. The tiny Cardiffian has been putting away sitters all his career like the one which presented itself in the 77th minute. But when he needed it most, his six-yard radar failed him. Cue uproarious laughter from Wembley which was, in reality, nothing more than badly veiled sighs of huge relief.
So Wales's return in the north London citadel now reads nothing from 34 years (Scott Gibbs heroics apart, of course). But there was plenty of last night's performance that would have cheered manager Gary Speed enormously, and not just the first half an hour in which Wales grasped the nettle, if not nearly their opponents' throats. The second half was their real achievement, a period when they dared to put a team ranked an absurd 113 places above them in their place. And but for Earnie...
"I'm very proud," said Speed. "I thought we controlled the second half and were very unlucky not to get a result. It was an unfortunate miss by Earnie. If you had to put your money on anyone in that position it would be Earnie."
So much for Montenegro and bust. So much for the viewpoint on the east side of the Severn that their neighbours had done England one favour on Friday night and would do another four days later by obligingly rolling over. Speed's Wales were certainly not willing victims. They packed the midfield and squeezed the space. And, in the final stages, they frightened England into one almighty panic.
The Football Association cynics will certainly not have been impressed – on any level. They will look around at the empty seats and mutter in private that this was as much an advert for the reforming of the Home Nations as Fabio Capello has been for the merits of the superstar foreign coach. England (just) did the job, but it was the away support still chanting at the end. Goodness knows when they'll get to rock Wembley again.
The last time Wales played at Wembley (1983) none of this line-up were alive. And when Wales did notch their only win at Wembley (1977) only Speed was alive. The chance of history gave the collision most of its flavour. There were other subplots, not least the prospect of the GB Olympic team. Some even called this the unofficial trial. The very probables versus the just about possibles, perhaps. Of course, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey will return here in 12 months in that unified nonsense, but the question was, were any of their Welsh team-mates capable of joining them?
On this showing, that is not the foregone "no" it was. Wales still bask in the promise of youth. Find a striker and they could be dangerous. The Welsh regrets won't end there. Wouldn't Bale have been more wisely employed down the left flank, running at Chris Smalling? Instead, Speed chose to keep the Tottenham terror on his unfavoured right flank. Bale still performed, but if he had been on that left side he would not have allowed Stewart Downing to pass and cross so easily.
Ashley Young's resulting strike was supposed to open the floodgates which would soon swamp any Dragon fire. Yet the resistance survived. In fact, it flourished. In the the dim and recent past, Wales have all too tamely caved in. Not here. They pressed on and tried manfully to push on. England's chances were kept to a minimum and then came the finale.
How did Earnshaw miss? He and Wales never will know. There were other gripes. Bale was anything but offside when put in by the equally excellent Ramsey as the second half began. And imagine if Craig Bellamy had not picked up that undeserved suspension on Friday. The "if onlys" will raise the hope still further in the valleys. "Fourth in the world, your having a laugh." Perhaps. But last night it seemed only as baffling as Wales down in 117th.Reuse content