There was thunder and lightning around St James' Park last night with one strike even knocking out the local Metro station, but within the stadium England's footballers played with the abandon of a kickabout on a sunlit meadow.
There was thunder and lightning around St James' Park last night with one strike even knocking out the local Metro station, but the cloud which had enveloped Sven Goran Eriksson's England team since Euro 2004 was dispelled by a performance of growing authority.
Ukraine, 71st in the world and without a win for a year, proved the perfect opponents for a team seeking redemption. Two of the paler performers of the summer, stalwarts David Beckham and Michael Owen, capped much improved displays with goals after 26 and 50 minutes respectively. Shaun Wright-Phillips, one of the bright lights of the next generation, delivered the coup de grâce with a stunning debut goal after 73.
As Beckham later admitted, England needed a good performance to restore their own confidence and a disenchanted nation's faith. The loss of the latter was clear from the sight of more than 16,000 empty seats at an echoing St James' Park.
Over-priced tickets, live terrestrial television coverage and the stormy weather contributed to the stay-aways, but had England done better in Portugal, the ground would have been full.
The supporters who did turn up came to judge England not acclaim them, and the early exchanges offered evidence for both prosecution and defence. There were some neat interchanges with both Gary Neville and Ashley Cole featuring on the overlap, while Beckham and Steven Gerrard looked much sharper than at Euro 2004.
The defence, however, was ripped open far too easily by a sporadically fluent visiting team. With better delivery of the final ball and smarter finishing, Ukraine could have embarrassed England. Eriksson will want Sol Campbell back for next month's World Cup qualifiers and, with Wales coming to Old Trafford in October, will hope that Rio Ferdinand settles quickly following his return from suspension.
The defensive uncertainties did at least give David James the chance to show he is over his summer disappointments, although his first save, from Oleg Husyev's fourth-minute shot, was badly fumbled. Thereafter he was much more secure, making a good stop from Andrei Shevchenko after 18 minutes and smart saves from Ruslan Rotan and Andrei Vorobyey in the second period.
England did not threaten until the 10th minute when Owen, looking bright in his first appearance of the season and his first game since joining Real Madrid, moved on to a Gerrard pass and skipped by Andrei Rusol. The defender pulled him back and Beckham's subsequent free-kick was blocked.
Gerrard, who filled in well enough on the left, then caused problems after being released by Nicky Butt and, following smart work by Beckham, Alan Smith volleyed wide with an overhead kick.
With Lampard also testing Olexsandr Shovkovskyy, England just about deserved the reward of Beckham's somewhat fortuitous goal. John Terry, improbably, advanced down the right but mis-hit his intended cross, grubbing the ball. It skidded behind a dozy Ukrainian defence and Beckham, reacting bravely and quickly, stabbed it in at the far post. It was his 14th goal for England, drawing him level with Paul Scholes and into the post-war top 20.
The goal settled England, who were in command from then on. A second might have come shortly before the break but Shovkovskyy denied Smith after Owen had put him through.
That was Smith's last involvement, as he was one of three players replaced at half-time. One of those introduced was Kieron Dyer. His arrival, and every touch, was greeted by a wave of booing by Newcastle United supporters evidently angered by his recent spat with Bobby Robson. It seems that Dyer will now have to either leave the club or make a grovelling apology.
Beckham, who has experienced similar abuse, made a point of encouraging Dyer, who went on to work hard but with little effect.
The captain was clearly in the mood to make a few points on his own behalf too. His impressive performance then peaked as he collected the ball on the right flank then drifted off the wing, foxing two opponents before floating a perfect left-footed chip on to Owen's head. His new team-mate headed in his 27th England goal to go level with David Platt at seventh in the standings. The visiting Spanish media were suitably impressed.
The game secured, Eriksson continued to make changes, introducing Wright-Phillips on the right with Beckham moving inside. The Manchester City winger, who became the 61st player capped by Eriksson in less than four years, took just 20 minutes to make a dramatic impact.
Picking up the ball near the halfway line, he ran at the Ukrainians who backed off and backed off until Wright-Phillips drilled a sweet shot inside the far post. It was a goal his step-father, Ian Wright, who scored nine times for England, would have been proud of.
"He has incredible pace, good touch and is a very impressive footballer," said Eriksson of the 22-year-old. "His father will be rather happy."
His captain, Beckham, added: "He has been doing it week in, week out for City. He deserves his chance and it's great for him to score today."
The mood was now jubilant and everyone wanted to get in on the act, especially Jermain Defoe, who had earlier missed a sitter from Lampard's cross. Driving forward, he drew a fine save from Shovkovskyy from the edge of the box.
There will be tougher tests to come, although the home defeats suffered by Poland and Austria last night the Poles losing 5-1 to Denmark suggest they will not come in Vienna and Katowice next month. Wales may be more problematic, but England can now approach their World Cup qualification campaign with much greater confidence.
England (4-4-2): James (Manchester City); Neville (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), King (Tottenham Hotspur), Cole (Arsenal); Beckham (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), Butt (Newcastle United), Gerrard (Liverpool); Owen (Real Madrid), Smith (Manchester United). Substitutes: Dyer (Newcastle United) for Gerrard, h-t; Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur) for Smith, h-t; Johnson (Chelsea) for Neville, h-t; Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) for Butt, 53; Carragher (Liverpool) for Cole, 61; Jenas (Newcastle United) for Lampard, 74.
Ukraine (3-4-2-1): Shovkovskyy (Dynamo Kiev); Fedorov (Dynamo Kiev), Rusol (Dnipro Dniporpetrovsk), Yezerskiy (Dnipro); Husyev (Dynamo Kiev), Tymoschuk (Shaktar Donetsk), Shelayev (Dnipro), Nesmachnyi (Dynamo Kiev); Vorobyey (Shaktar Donetsk), Rotan (Dnipro); Shevchenko (Milan). Substitutes: Voronin (Bayer Leverkusen) for Shevchenko, 53; Kormyltsev (Torpedo Moscow) for Husyev, 64; Radchenko (Dnipro) for Nesmachnyi, 64; Zakarlyuka (Illichivets) for Rotan, 67.
Referee: M McCurry (Scotland).
England man for man
David James: Lack of authority highlighted by spilling shot early. Partially redeemed by second-half block and two late saves. Marks: 5/10
Gary Neville: Disjointed display. Understanding with Beckham surprisingly poor. 4
John Terry: Positive run for Beckham goal, rare for England defender to come forward with ball. Appeared most comfortable of the back line. Aggressive. 7
Ledley King: Caught out to play Shevchenko onside. Didn't appear as assured as in Portugal but grew in confidence. 5
Ashley Cole: Failed to recapture barnstorming form of Euro 2004. Offered scant protection from Gerrard. 5
David Beckham: Appeared fitter, tracked back, and dead-ball delivery improved. More like the Beckham of old. Confidence restored. 8
Nicky Butt: Could be forgiven for rustiness, after lack of games. Didn't quite offer protection the defence needed. 5
Frank Lampard: Not quite the threat of last season. Eclipsed by Gerrard but improved once Liverpool midfielder had departed. 6
Steven Gerrard: Clearly uncomfortable on the left but his desire to come inside was effective even if he left Cole exposed. Competitive, positive and always looking to drive forward. 7
Michael Owen: Drew booking for defender with strong early run, faded for rest of half but took headed goal well. 6
Alan Smith: Enthusiastic, energetic and put in more tackles than anyone else, but his partnership with Owen simply didn't gel. 5
Substitutes: Glen Johnson (for Neville, H/T) 6; Jermaine Jenas (for Lampard, 73) 5; Jamie Carragher (for Cole, 61) 5; Shaun Wright-Phillips (for Butt, 52) 7; Kieron Dyer (for Gerrard, H/T) 5; Jermain Defoe (for Smith, H/T) 5.Reuse content