Yellow-booted Bale and Downing shine down the wings of Wembley

For Speed there was no humiliation, and Wales will never be offered a better chance than the one Earnshaw spurned

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It was by no means a story befitting the legendary struggles which have raged since Owain Glyndwr was a lad but it was one which the fluorescent yellow boots of two flying wingers briefly set alight.

Gareth Bale's radiated the most light. His withdrawal from the Wales side who had faced the English in Cardiff in March sucked the air out of the nation and raised again the suspicion that he has a physical vulnerability. Here, he had made up for it inside the first 15 minutes of an absorbing encounter with Ashley Cole and, for that matter, any others who showed up, at their peril, in his domain down the Wales right.

The timing and awareness Cole showed Bale was certainly something vastly different to the Montenegrin Sasa Balic, whom he tormented in his home city last Friday, but the Welshman was up to the task. Even the Wales manager, Gary Speed, admitted he had considered switching Bale to the left side of midfield to face the less experienced challenge of Chris Smalling, but his presence in the new right-side role where Speed has billeted him was enough to bring first Ashley Young and then James Milner crashing into the 22-year-old.

England's manager, Fabio Capello, had suggested there was a special plan for Bale and it appeared to be as rudimentary as this, during a half-hour in which his team-mates sought more of the gifts which his flank appeared to offer. Norwich City's Steve Morison was another one – unsettling John Terry there, in the way that a physical striker will. Aaron Ramsey joined in, racing down that flank on to a ball whose flight Cole misjudged.

The question was how long Speed's side could sustain their act of squeezing England's space and the answer came when Capello's men finally discovered that Wales were not the only nation in possession of a damaging right winger. Stewart Downing's own display in Sofia last Friday was a shadow of Bale's in Cardiff, but when England began to find him he exposed the defensive weaknesses which are the biggest impediment to Speed restoring his nation to formerglories.

Downing held the wide right flank in a way that Theo Walcott has sometimes not, to Capello's frustration over the course of the last few years, and his reward was a fairly rapid appreciation that Wales could not cope. He revealed himself as a player capable of fine crosses with both feet – almost finding Rooney with his left before bewitching Joe Ledley with his right and, in a reprise of their Villa days, then finding Young in a criminally generous amount of space.

Though Wales never recovered, Bale's light still glittered. In a brief second-half period, he displayed that ability to breeze past two England players, leaving Cole and Gareth Barry in his slipstream before Milner placed a fine challenge to stem his run through central midfield. Within two minutes, an easy, graceful cross was cannoning off the top of Smalling's head as Joe Hart flailed for it. By the end, though, Bale was lashing in from any conceivable distance. Speed had suspected that Craig Bellamy's suspension for this match would hurt him and he was right.

There was no humiliation here for Speed and his side, who will never be offered a better chance than the one Robert Earnshaw spurned late, and who even proved in flashes that they have embraced Speed's passing principles. Bale will hope for more of a support act if he really is to help the new manager lead Wales to a brighter place. But he is putting them on the road there.