There was an apologetic air about England at Wembley yesterday evening as they eked out a nervy 2-1 win over Hungary. The coach and players had, in the matchday programme, spoke collectively about putting things right following their Round of 16 exit to Germany at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and the acknowledgement of the fans' support at various stages of the evening further emphasised the penitent tone.
Even Fabio Capello’s selections highlighted the desire to turn things around. Out went the likes of David James, Ledley King and Emile Heskey and in came a younger breed, including Manchester City winger Adam Johnson and Arsenal duo Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere. The 4-4-2 formation was switched for a more expansive 4-2-2-1-1, with 72,000 supporters playing the roles of judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner.
Thankfully for the Three Lions redemption came thanks to a stellar performance from stand-in captain Steven Gerrard, deputising for the injured Rio Ferdinand. “Stevie scored two fantastic goals tonight - he’s such a big player for us and he just made difference,” Theo Walcott told FIFA.com after the game.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart concurred: “You can’t describe the guy, he’s one of the best in the world, he always has been and he always will be. He’s an honour to play with and an honour to train with. You can learn off him and he can do things that not many other people in the world can do football-wise. I think he really stepped up to the plate when we needed him.”
England certainly did need Gerrard’s double after going behind to Phil Jagielka’s 62nd-minute own goal, and both Hart and Walcott believe the victory was vital for the squad to move on from the recent criticism levelled at the Three Lions.
“The win tonight was huge – you could tell that by the players’ reaction at the final whistle,” said the 23-year-old goalkeeper. “Hungary came and made it very, very difficult, got a scrappy goal, but that was almost a good thing for us; the challenge of going a goal behind. That was quite daunting for a few of the younger players, but I think it made them even more determined to turn the game around and win.”
“I thought the team coped very well,” agreed the Arsenal player. “We played some very good football in the first half and second. It’s nice to get a first win coming back from a disappointment and also, the best thing is to forget about it, move on and concentrate on the future.”
Unlike some other members of the team, who had disappointing showings at the FIFA World Cup, the young duo were universally backed by the Wembley crowd and revelled in the occasion. It was Hart’s first start for England and Walcott’s first appearance since being left out of Capello’s squad for South Africa 2010.
“It’s always great to play for England, no matter when and where,” said the pacy 21-year-old. “Being back in the squad and with the manager having the faith in me to play me from the start, I just wanted to show what I could do and it was a very good game for everyone tonight.”
Hart added: “I didn’t really have much to do. I just tried to keep out of the way the best I could, and do what was needed when it was. It was nice to have an input. I thought we were tight at the back, really tight, and limited them to few chances.
"When they got that little one at the end and I thought I’d repay the lads by making that save! It was nice to be the number one, but after Ben [Foster]’s injury and Paul [Robinson]’s withdrawal, I was the last man standing. But I do feel that I’ve got a really good chance to establish myself now.”