It was perhaps the abiding English image from the wreckage of Gelsenkirchen three years ago: Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott, arms slung around each other's shoulders, trudging around the perimeter of a pitch where Portugal had trodden on their World Cup dreams. "Our time will come," they might have been saying to each other.
There would be something satisfyingly cyclical about observing that Lennon's finally has as England look to another finals this morning with the kind of self-belief that comes of qualifying with two games to spare. The scintillating 20 minutes of football that really sent them there were all about him – the shimmering run past Nikola Pokrivac into the right side of the Croatia area which, by the time he reached Josip Simunic, had gathered such pace that the defender was lumpen and powerless to do anything more than stick out a right leg like a Sunday League stopper. Then there was the cross for the head of Steven Gerrard which was so precisely and beautifully placed that the midfielder barely strained a limb to lean to head it in to make victory inevitable.
These are the talents which you might have expected to see had you projected Lennon's future forward from that July day in 2006 when he rose from the bench to shake the hand of the tearful, retiring David Beckham and offered the fast, direct penetration which Beckham had lacked. Things did not pan out like that of course. Lennon, a teenager when he played in the 2006 tournament, has still won only 12 caps and his last appearances – against Ukraine and Slovakia in the spring – were mixed. Beckham might have been the one watching Lennon from the bench for most of last night but he is still there and if the tears he shed were at the thought it was over then no one, not Lennon, nor Walcott, has brought that outcome to pass.
Fabio Capello has been baffled. "I don't know," was his honest answer last week when asked who Lennon reminded him of. He recites all of the attributes Lennon has shown him, shooting left, shooting right, playing one-to-one. And pace: that quality which, when everything else is stripped away, turns games like none other. For Michael Owen, St-Etienne, v Argentina, read Aaron Lennon, Cape Town, 2010? It is not such an improbable proposition.
The point about Lennon possessing pace but then lacking the cross is almost as over-used as the one about England's search for someone on the opposite flank, but one of his coaches at Tottenham, Tim Sherwood, insists that it is better than many assume; that those who feel let down by his delivery forget how fast he is travelling. "I think he has to improve in confidence," Capello has observed and this one of those nights which can only help. Croatia's Danijel Pranjic was touted as the man with pace to damage Glen Johnson but it was Lennon who damaged him with a performance few have seen from him since he destroyed Manchester United's Patrice Evra in last season's Carling Cup final.
England's entire first-half offensive came through Lennon. To go with the contribution to the goals was the exchanged pass with Wayne Rooney which sent him running through on goalkeeper Vedran Runje on 37 minutes, though the clipped finish was hesitant. Johnson, infected by the same belief as the game wore on, provided Lennon with the confidence to operate more narrowly, too. It was the Tottenham player who sent through the pass which put Emile Heskey through on goal as well. Lennon also put in the work when needed at right-back.
With immaculate symmetry, Beckham was given the same 10 minutes at the end, in Lennon's lieu, as Lennon enjoyed that day back in Gelsenkirchen. Only by then England were 5-1 up and Beckham's chances of another World Cup campaign were looking slimmer. Lennon and Johnson for South Africa looks a certainty, and Walcott, too. This time they will be hoping for none of the reflective stadium perimeter walks and thoughts of what might have been.