Lions make a meal of minnows
It was the night when Steve McClaren lost his rag with reporters and revealed a keen understanding of the football journalism game. "Gentlemen, if you want to write whatever you want to write, you can write it because that is all I am going to say. Thank you," the brollied one said after a wholly unconvincing 3-0 defeat of Andorra in Barcelona in March 2007 that included a goalless first half.
Roy Hodgson was more voluble here. He could afford to be. Then again, he usually is, often choosing 100 words when ten would have sufficed. The explanation that "there are no easy games in international football" was a favourite of Graham Taylor, the last England manager to host San Marino at Wembley, but it did not ring true here.
That night, 20 years ago, England took until the 67th minute to get past a two-goal margin, eventually rattling in six. This time it took 70, and the scoreline was one shy of Taylor's team, but Hodgson was happy enough. Playing San Marino was a game that England could never win, as they were always going to be victors. Nevertheless, save for the chest injury sustained by Theo Walcott, this was regarded as a good night at the office by the coach.
"It was attack v defence, wasn't it? We were patient, we probed, and we were good value for our five goals," a happy Hodgson said, hale and hearty after hearing Ukraine had drawn in Moldova.
What can be learned from beating a team featuring just one professional and ranked only equal to Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Island at the bottom of FIFA's ranking? Anything less than a margin beyond five goals would register as English failure. That threshold was met but not breached.
England fans took to ironically cheering whenever Joe Hart touched the ball. It broke up murmurings of distraction as time ticked on. The goal rush did not materialise until around the time when train timetables were being eyed and early dashes made to prevent being held up on Wembley Way.
After the heavy blow that Theo Walcott took in the early moments when clattered clumsily by kamikaze keeper Aldo Simoncini - an accountant by trade - England hardly struggled but never looked as if they were previewing slaughter.
"I thought we were going to win," Hodgson smiled when talking of the opening 30 minutes, although he also admitted some concerns. "You worry that the players are going to stop doing what I want them to do and start panicking."
Thirty minutes of stasis drifted by as a Sammarinese wall of blue held firm. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's twin shots were the best efforts until Michael Carrick and Danny Welbeck rattled the bar and post in quick succession just after Wayne Rooney had headed wide.
The pressure, against a team for whom, to a man, the second touch was usually a tackle, was always going to tell, even allowing for England play that was often predictable and workmanlike. When Welbeck sprinted clear on the left-hand side of the box, Simoncini's lunge was again clumsy, and the Manchester United man only too happy to fall. Rooney smashed the spot-kick home.
It looked like time to begin a greatest hits set. Danny Welbeck reprised his Kiev goal against Sweden with a backheeled finish to make sure there would be no booing at half-time. Instead, the tedium of a Mexican wave could begin. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino would not be able to live up to their name. A chasing, a hounding, a plundering of goals was expected, but the first 25 minutes of the second half were sluggish.
Novelty excitement came when San Marino striker Michele Cervellini, the lone man in a 7-2-1 formation not seen since North Korea at the last World Cup finals, made a break. How we laughed when he ran out of puff and wafted wide. It was not until the 92nd minute that Hart actually had to touch the ball with his hands. The other 11 touches included one goal kick on an evening where the self-styled 'Hart-dog' could have played in an overcoat and sensible shoes while reading a light novel.
"It was quite a pleasant second half," Hodgson said, revealing himself as no thrill seeker. "If every half was like that then being a football manager would be a very pleasant job indeed."
Rooney, captain for the day, was never required to put in the heroics that Steven Gerrard, his equivalent on that Catalan night of near-shame, did against Andorra, a night some believe was his best for his country.
Like Gerrard, Rooney supplied two goals to right the ship but rarely needed to break into a sprint. Manchester United's new midfield general played off Welbeck, but in a far more advanced position than he currently does for his club. In Warsaw on Tuesday, Hodgson the innate conservative may have other ideas for him, though he offered praise for Rooney and his club colleagues. "All of the Manchester United players played with enormous confidence," he said.
Indeed, Welbeck's plundering of two goals was a definite positive since, for all his qualities in leading the line, he is yet to give the impression he is a natural finisher. Oxlade-Chamberlain's first international goal could also be deemed a positive, but in truth little could be learned for England ahead of their flight to Poland.
Playing San Marino is a footballing hiding to nothing, where victory is assumed, and only the margin of victory measured. In scoring five, England had done enough but little more.