- Harry Kane sends England to World Cup with 1-0 win over Slovenia
LONDON: Before Harry Kane finally broke the tedium with a late goal, the extent of the excitement at Wembley Stadium on Thursday was fans ripping out pages of the program, folding them into paper airplanes and launching them on the pitch.
A 1-0 victory over Slovenia ensured England can now at least now be sure of boarding a plane for the World Cup in Russia next year. On the basis of the showing against Slovenia, though, pessimistic pundits are saying England might not be staying long at the World Cup.
"Was it the performance we wanted and the night we wanted? No, absolutely not," England manager Gareth Southgate said.
The downbeat tone was set earlier in the day when Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn told industry executives at a conference: "England players do not travel well."
Not at all.
Since missing out on the 2008 European Championship, securing places at tournaments has been easy going for the English who are now unbeaten in 38 qualifiers. The problem is once England qualifies for major tournaments and its limited capacity to threaten not only football's aristocracy but the mid-ranking teams as well.
Since winning the 1966 World Cup on home soil, England has only won six games in the knockout stages at major tournaments. The last success was against Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup, and England couldn't even overcome tournament newcomer Iceland in the last 16 at the 2016 European Championship.
Glenn blames the cycle of collapses on the "psychological edge" missing in England teams.
"We know there is a brittleness in unfamiliar circumstances that we have to deal with," Glenn told the Leaders conference at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge home.
What Glenn saw later at Wembley was that, even in the familiar confines of English football's HQ, the team fares little better.
It was a dreary, penultimate qualifier in Group F made even more desolate by 30,000 of the 90,000 seats being unoccupied and those who did show up demonstrating their boredom with the paper planes. In part the low crowd was a reflection of the apathy of England fans, but ticket sales were also affected by the expectation of a London Underground strike that was only called off this week.
"We have to show resilience whatever the atmosphere," Southgate said, "and whatever the feeling."
Southgate played up the magnitude of earning a place well before December's World Cup draw, contrasting his team's feat with the struggle to Russia being endured by other leading teams. European champion Portugal, Euro 2016 semifinalist Wales, Italy and the Netherlands are out of the automatic qualification places.
"For English football it's crucial to be at the World Cup," Southgate said, "and probably quite critical for the economy as well."
Hyperbole, certainly, about the country's finances. More realistic, though, when it came to assessing the state of the squad.
"Tonight highlighted where we are," Southgate said after England achieved only five shots on target in 90 minutes. "Of course we would have loved to have played more fluidly and scored more goals."
But there was anxiety in the team, and a need to be savvier in possession.
"We know we have to get better but that's for tomorrow," Southgate said. "This team has potential, but we've got a hell of a lot of work to do. We come off the back of what happened in the last European Championships with the change of coach, a lot of difficulties throughout the campaign."
It was a campaign that began with Sam Allardyce in charge, but he was fired after only one game over indiscreet comments to undercover reporters.
"When I was given the job to keep things steady last year the goal was to qualify for Russia," Southgate said.
That has been achieved — with a game to spare — by winning seven qualifiers, drawing the other two and only conceding three goals.
England has demonstrated some of the perseverance required to prosper at major tournaments.
Kane's close-range goal, after meeting Kyle Walker's cross, was England's third stoppage-time goal in qualifying. Five points have been collected from them, but England can't rely on late shows all the time.
"I am not going to hide and say we are exactly where we want to be or the performance was what we'd have liked it to be," Southgate said. "They are going to improve but it is a work in progress."
Southgate believes the national team is burdened by two decades of underachieving since he was in the side that made the 1996 European Championship semifinals at Wembley.
England, which plays friendlies against Germany and Brazil next month at Wembley, at least knows its place in the global game.
"Are we going to become Spain in the next eight months? No we are not," Southgate said.