The promise of the start of a brave new England was hardly given much impetus at an underpopulated Wembley despite Wayne Rooney beginning his captaincy with the winning penalty in a 1-0 victory over Norway on Wednesday.
For the first time in the seven-year history of the new Wembley, the arena was less than half full for an England international as 40,181 underwhelmed fans witnessed a familiar old diet of mostly turgid, uninspiring fare from Roy Hodgson’s World Cup failures, enlivened mainly by the sparky contribution of Raheem Sterling.
It was the Liverpool teenager’s constant buzzing and probing at the fringes of the Norwegian defence which finally undid the visitors after 68 fairly laborious minutes as he outfoxed and outpaced Omar Elabdellaoui, forcing the Olympiakos man into a rash challenge on the left edge of the box.
Relief seemed to shoot through Rooney, who had hitherto looked to be trying almost too hard in his newly-offered captaincy role, as he stepped up to smash the resultant penalty with some venom high past Orjan Haskjold Nyland for his 41st England goal.
Until then, his England, with its inexperienced pallor, a midfield yet to gel and still seemingly suffering from a post-Brazil hangover, could only huff and puff as they tried to blow away the world’s 53rd ranked team. Norway’s dogged starting line-up was typified by featuring just two players from the second tier of the English game.
For much of the time, it was painful to behold England, a reflection of some of the team’s hapless and winless struggles in Brazil in the first game since those indignities.
Rooney could, as usual, not be faulted for effort but this was not one of his inspirational nights and, indeed, England looked sharper once he was substituted after his goal and Arsenal’s new signing Danny Welbeck provided a lively cameo.
BRIGHT AND INVENTIVE
For a brief moment early in the second half as England seemed to be running out of ideas, Norway had even started fancying their chances to the point that the home goalkeeper Joe Hart was twice forced to make excellent saves from Joshua King, a striker for the English Championship (second tier) side Blackburn Rovers.
Until the penalty, these had effectively been the best chances in the game.
Thank heavens for Sterling, the paltry crowd must have thought.
Bright and inventive, he was comfortably England’s best player, linking up on occasion with his Liverpool team mate Daniel Sturridge with an understanding and sharpness which at least bodes well for England’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
They will all have to play a good deal better in Basel against Switzerland on Monday in what promises to be their most difficult qualifier but manager Hodgson was satisfied with what he felt was a confidence rebuilding triumph.
“We enjoyed some positive moments, some good movement and good play. Our passing was good although I was not very happy with how we started the second half,” said Hodgson.
“Without letting Norway into the game totally, we gave them hope. For the last 30 minutes we were pretty good value for our victory. We wanted a clean sheet and got that.”
Rooney conceded that there was much room for improvement but singled out Sterling for praise.
“He is a threat, he gets at players. It doesn’t always come off but he’s an exciting player to watch. We all could have done better but it’s a night where it was important to win,” said the captain.
Whether it was enough to woo back the crowds to a fairly flat and soulless Wembley is another matter. This was by far the lowest crowd ever to watch England in the stadium, some 8,000 down on the 48,876 who attended a friendly against Sweden in 2011.