Identity and tradition loomed large over Friday’s Wembley World Cup qualifier between two old rivals, namely in the form of England and Scotland’s Remembrance tributes.
Defying FIFA and bringing into view the prospect of sanctions ranging from a fine to points deductions, the two sides wore black armbands featuring embroidered poppies to commemorate Britain’s war dead.
The debate is sure to continue when world football’s governing body issues its response but the message from both teams was clear – consequences be damned, this was a British thing that the British must do.
Such an unwavering sense of identity is not something that can be readily associated with this England team in a footballing sense, although the healthy 3-0 margin of victory with bragging rights and top spot in Group F to boot felt like a step in towards rehabilitation.
Gareth Southgate might have been seeing through the third game of a four-match audition to replace a man who managed England for 90 minutes, but two bosses down the line, much of the first 45 minutes at Wembley came straight from England’s Euro 2016 playbook.
Scotland pushed gamely forwards from kick-off and immediately after Daniel Sturridge’s 24th-minute opener for the hosts, but they were almost entirely devoid of attacking inspiration. Frankly, they looked like a team showing eight changes – not the sort of gamble you can make and lose on the return of four points from as many games that their under-fire boss Gordon Strachan now holds.
England enjoyed the lion’s share of possession but did very little with it very slowly, aside from Kyle Walker being alive to Raheem Sterling’s blocked shot and crossing superbly for Sturridge to contort and head home at the near post.
There were dribbles out of defence from John Stones, a haphazard pursuit given the lack of structure for this that Manchester City provide for him on a weekly basis. Too often, the young centre-back appeared Scotland’s best hope before the break.
This crop of England players regularly look like the uncool kids trying out last month’s trends. On a couple of early attacks, central midfield duo Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier stationed themselves outside Stones and Gary Cahill as full-backs Walker and Danny Rose pushed on down the flank. It came to nought – attempted funk from a side struggling with basic 12-bar blues.
Scotland sensed they were still in the game and attacked with renewed vigour after the restart. James Forrest and Robert Snodgrass arguably should have levelled before England showed a ruthlessness absent from their work for much of this year.
Sterling combined with Rose, whose cross was directed into the goal by Adam Lallana. The tempo raised, Tottenham full-back found Liverpool attacker and the goal arrived. Southgate was jubilant on the touchline, more so than most men in the midst of a prolonged job interview.
Cahill headed a third from Wayne Rooney’s corner and the final half-hour dragged out long and cold into the night for Scotland. Wembley indulged in “Oles” as passes were strung together late on. This should be a more common occurrance.
Alongside captain Rooney, Southgate’s outfielders were drawn from City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham – four teams playing with varying levels of verve, style and tactical sophistication this season, under four of the most celebrated coaches in the game.
The chief conductors are not part of the equation admittedly. Sturridge and Lallana did not have Philippe Coutinho irresistibly linking them tonight, Sterling could not enjoy a nudge and a wink from David Silva’s magical left foot and Cahill would never find Eden Hazard on the end of a raking pass.
But there is plenty for Southgate or whoever else takes the reins to work with. Sterner challenges lie in wait – Scotland were dreadful and Strachan’s race looks run – but if this comfortable win lifts some of the fear and apprehension that again gripped a talented side early on, they might take some sorely needed belief with them on the long road to redemption.