England achieved something at Wembley that escaped them during the World Cup in Brazil – they won.
It was unconvincing, uninspired and, perhaps most significantly, played out in front of an attendance that only just scraped above 40,000 against a Norway side that resides very much on world football’s undercard.
The vast areas of red seats where supporters used to be was the sight of England’s fans voting with their feet after the letdown of the World Cup and in sharp contrast to the packed houses that have been in vogue for years in the Premier League.
Just 40,181 turned out to watch England’s first match since the World Cup
As preparation for the opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland in Basel on Monday, it served as little more than a morale-booster provided by the win.
It was a night that underlined England’s current place in the nation’s thoughts and why manager Roy Hodgson and his team cannot afford defeat when they take the first serious steps on the road to recovery when the Euro campaign begins.
So what were the main issues emerging from an England win achieved in a surreal and almost testimonial atmosphere inside a less than half full Wembley?
England need to win back their public
The Football Association’s worst fears were realised by the embarrassing sight of thousands of empty seats in its £750m monument to the future of the game in this country – just 40,181 turning out to watch England’s first match since a World Cup campaign that effectively expired after only two games.
England have lost much of the public’s imagination and interest after Brazil and, almost as damagingly as anger, it appears apathy is the overriding emotion as their status as a second-tier football nation is seemingly accepted by their fans.
England goalkeeper Joe Hart
England have kept a clean sheet in their last three matches at Wembley
There may be mitigating circumstances, especially as Norway are not high-end opponents, but such a poor attendance is an accurate reflection of England’s current standing in the national psyche.
Throughout a tepid evening, “ThingsBetterThanBeingAtWembleyRightNow” was a trending topic on Twitter – and certainly the evidence of those empty spaces suggested plenty had found more attractive alternatives.
An attempt to raise the atmosphere with a brass band playing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” outside Wembley’s main entrance before kick-off smacked more of irony than entertainment given the low-key build up and the fare that followed.
The looming danger for the FA is that England’s first Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland in Basel next Monday is their most dangerous fixture and the home games against San Marino, Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania are hardly the sort to entice many more than turned out here on a balmy night.
England’s group, Switzerland apart, is very favourable but without the sort of opponents that would allow the team and the FA to create a spark again. The days of a packed out Wembley, given the current position of the team, may be some time away and a match with only two shots on target did not get the pulses racing.
What a contrast to the packed houses guaranteed in the Premier League with the arrival of elite players such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao at Manchester United while one of England’s brightest late performers – substitute Danny Welbeck – was effectively pushed out of the door of Old Trafford by their arrival.
Tom Cleverley was another England player who suffered the same fate. Premier League giants would love to fulfil FA chairman Greg Dyke’s wish of producing homegrown players to bolster the national team – but Sir Alex Ferguson once described Manchester United as “the bus that waits for no-one”. The likes of Welbeck, a fixture in England’s squad, had to hop aboard another.