It was 21 November last year and Italy, already qualified for Euro 2008, were completing the formalities of their campaign at home to the Faroe Islands. The pundit for Italy's state broadcaster RAI was Fabio Capello, and, for want of anything better to discuss, he was informed by the commentator that England were two goals adrift to Croatia at Wembley.
"They've proved themselves to be a team with good players who don't know how to express themselves," reflected Capello. "Or at least, in my opinion, they don't live up to their potential."
He could not have known then that 10 months later he would be addressing those same England deficiencies, although one suspects that he was aware that a vacancy was about to arise and, as he had come close to filling it before, it was unlikely he would be overlooked. But his remark displayed considerable prescience.
For one night only – and it must be stressed, that is all their endeavours at the Maksimir Stadium on Wednesday night amount to thus far – Capello's England did, with certain caveats, live up to their potential. They did express themselves. And for his part in creating England unity, a spectacle of such rarity that many of us had believed it had become extinct, Capello must be commended.
Not that it particularly astounded this observer. I had backed my hunch. After the initial sparring, my (modest, I should stress) outlay was not in jeopardy. I simply felt that Croatia could be the victims of hubris while England, who have so often in the past been entrapped by a belief that they are world-beaters, could well react positively to their diminished status in the world order. And so it transpired.
Though one can comprehend the exuberant reaction in some quarters, perhaps it calls for a collective cold shower. Just as the nature of England's 5-1 triumph over Germany at Munich seven years ago was a little too freakish to be accepted at face value, the same might be said of this.
To an extent, Slaven Bilic's men fell prey to their own curious strategy. Given the technical prowess of many of their players, it is bewildering that they appeared intent on battering England into submission. Perhaps they had not been prepared for Capello's men to be quite so cavalier. Nor had they expected the personnel on duty.
If Croatia had anticipated a somewhat predictable line and length of delivery from David Beckham, they were actually confronted by an unfamiliar pace man in Theo Walcott. Maybe they anticipated lightning reflexes from Jermain Defoe, if not Michael Owen, in and around the area. Instead they were always on the ropes, countering one of the game's enduring heavyweights, Emile Heskey.
Psychologically, they were floored after Walcott's opener which, admittedly, came fortuitously for England as a result of a horrendous defensive error. The game was lost before Robert Kovac was banished for leading with his elbow when challenging for a high ball with Joe Cole.
Yet England, and all who accompany them with a following breeze on this particular voyage, must be wary of the wind now turning. In international football it can do so capriciously. International results are habitually misleading. Never mind England's 4-1 eclipse of Croatia, the real shock of the night took place in Zurich: Switzerland 1, Luxembourg 2. Ask the principality to do it again next time, against Greece, and they will undoubtedly get walloped.
Form lines are curiously imprecise in World Cup qualifying and though, in four weeks' time, England should account for Kazakhstan, dispatched 3-0 by Bilic's team, heady expectation at Wembley could have just as much a detrimental as a beneficial effect if the goals do not flow immediately.
There were those who, beforehand, suggested that Wednesday's events would determine whether the Capello project was plausible, and implied that defeat would mean it was not. They were wrong, as erroneous as those who are now lauding him prematurely as The Answer to England football's problems. Qualification, confidentlyclaimed, with coherent performances, would confirm merely that the Football Association have appointed a man equipped not only with an accurate route map, but a knowledge of how to keep on track when the terrain becomes rough, as it will.
England are employing the best-rewarded manager in world football, who was a club man-ager of the highest repute and is blessed with half a team of super-ior quality and the rest decentperformers. They should qualifyfor South Africa 2010, though it is unlikely that they will venture through Group Eight unscathed. (If you fancy they will, incidentally, you can get odds of 10-1). Capello knows boulders will cross his path. Not just injuries, but the opposite: too many fit players.
How would he have reacted if Steven Gerrard and Owen Hargreaves had been available? If Michael Owen had been match-fit? How does Capello now integrate the absentees? With Frank Lampard having made a significant contribution, how will the England manager reconcile that with the return of his Liverpool counterpart?
And how to handle a prodigy who always looked good in theory (pun intended) and has finally done so in reality. Capelloknows that, from now on, the 19-year-old will be a magnet for full-backs. Though it should be regarded as a compliment, inter-national defenders, once they are wise to a player, have ways of dealing with the threat. Walcott's club manager, Arsène Wenger, has nurtured him carefully. You imagine his England counterpart will also guard against overusing Walcott.
Over his 15 years as a club manager, in which his teams won nine titles (Juventus's two were subsequently stripped from them) the England manager has, as Gabriele Marcotti's lucid,if at times over-reverential,account of his compatriot's life, Capello: Portrait of a Winner, emphasises, always staked his career on players who could "make a difference". Walcott certainly did that in Zagreb.
Omitting Beckham from the starting line-up was the easy part. Leaving David Bentley, suited rather than booted, not even on the substitutes' bench despite being regarded as a rather more clever, and certainly more exper-ienced, player than Walcott, was considered a gamble. Fortunately for Capello, two years after Sven Goran Eriksson dispatched the then 17-year-old on whatwas to prove a fool's errand in Germany, he arrived in style.
Maybe there was something about Walcott that reminded Capello of Stan Mortensen. The story, according to Marcotti, goes that in the immediate post-war years Mortensen trained with other professional footballers among British servicemen based in Italy on the pitch close to Capello's home in the town of Pieris. Capello's father, Guerrino, was closely involved with his local club, and – who knows? – the infant may have been present at these sessions, albeit as not much more than a babe in arms.
Mortensen, apart from scoring a hat-trick for Blackpool in the so-called "Matthews Final" of 1953, scored 23 goals in 25 England appearances, including four on his debut, when Portugal were defeated 10-0. He was a formidable natural goalscorer but could also intimidate rearguards with incisive running from deep. Remind you of anyone? England's attacking formation that day was Stanley Matthews, Mortensen, Tommy Lawton, Wilf Mannion and Tom Finney. What wouldn't Capello give for an equivalent line-up today? For all the eulogies bestowed on England since Wednesday, this is a nation not exactly overrun with accomplished forwards.
Although Capello has passed his first examination, with a somewhat higher grade than most expected, he is aware that there are many more papers to sit. Defensively, England were not entirely comfortable. Wayne Rooney's tracking back can result in dangerously positioned free-kicks, and Ashley Cole's handling of fleet-footed attackers can be found wanting. Capello will not have been at all satisfied with the way in which England succumbed when Croatia scored.
On Wednesday he mostly got it right. The question is how he will respond when he doesn't. And that will happen. If the passage to South Africa is as smooth as some now fondly imagine, he truly would be exceptional. To turn the old sporting adage on its head, you don't become a good team overnight, do you?
'Capello: Portrait of a Winner' by Gabriele Marcotti is published by Bantam at £18.99Reuse content