Such was the despondency and apathy surrounding the England camp following an abysmal World Cup in Brazil that not even a rousing response of six consecutive wins, including this latest polished performance in navigating a route past the auld enemy, will alter the end of term report card.
Neutralising the blood and thunder of a first fixture in Scotland for 15 years is a sign of growing maturity, but as Graeme Souness summarised, Champions League players beat Championship counterparts every time – especially four days after such a high-octane throwback battle against the Irish involving all but one of the same players.
The confidence instilled by an immaculate European Qualifying campaign from four games should not be undervalued, however, when one compares the difficulties experienced by many of the other international super powers.
World Champions Germany were given stiff autumn tests by both Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and the encouragement generated by the new qualifying format in the Group D rivals is reflected in fellow home nations Wales and Northern Ireland and across the continent, as four of the five lowest ranked UEFA nations, including San Marino, picked up at least a point in the latest round of fixtures.
As Spain, Germany and the Netherlands continue to experience growing pains in their respective transitional periods entered post-Copa, Roy Hodgson has reconstructed a young and exuberant England side that are slowly emerging from the shadows of the golden generation that failed before them.
With each passing performance, Wayne Rooney is growing into the captaincy role vacated by the waning Steven Gerrard. Much was documented over the past fortnight about Rooney’s place among the pantheon of greats to bear the Three Lions shirt, and here he was answering his critics with cartwheels and straining neck muscles.
Tweaking the system to a fluid 4-3-3 last night, England emit ‘work in progress’. But while it was a blend of youth and experience which worked so effectively in the east end of Glasgow, it is the emergence of Nat and Jack that will entice England fans back to Wembley for the season’s resumption against Lithuania and Italy next March.
Jack Wilshere is of course nothing new in body, but a change in positioning and personnel around him has breathed fresh life into this latest rebuilding project. Unshackled by the retirements of rivals, and spurred on by a frustrating three months with Arsenal, Wilshere was the unstoppable freight train reaching top speed against Slovenia, and he took his plaudits with him to Celtic Park, only lifting his foot off the gas when stopping to produce a gorgeous assist for England’s opener.
The pinpoint pass to club-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was Beckhamesque, a moment of class to break Scottish hearts. The still only 22-year-old has reached the highest level for both club and country through playing the game high on intensity, but his injury track record suggests it has come at a price.
Getting the best out of a fit Wilshere in a deep-lying, more specialist role has surfaced as an even greater perplexity than the Gerrard-Lampard dichotomy of old, but finding the answer may well be the ticket to England’s best tournament showing in 20 years by the time France 2016 comes around.
While Hodgson will continue to refine his midfield blend in the New Year – with the form of Jordan Henderson and fitness of Ross Barkley inevitably set to improve – far less clouded must he be on the subject of Glen Johnson’s successor.
Nathaniel Clyne will struggle to produce two displays of such defensive assuredness in the rest of his international career, after the right-back built on a promising debut on Saturday by adding another £10million to his valuation last night.
England may just have finally found a worthy replacement for Gary Neville, and an answer to the right-sided conundrum that had been accelerating since Johnson’s demise and Kyle Walker’s unending spell on the sidelines.
Bigger tests await Clyne, but in the absence of those aforementioned pair of ‘modern-day full-backs’ and belief in either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones ever reaching the required standard shelved, the discovery of a right-back whose love is defending will have pleased Hodgson as much as anything.
The continued improvement of Danny Welbeck, in the absence of the injury-blighted Daniel Sturridge, will have come a close second. Rooney’s relationship with the striker forged at Old Trafford, as well as Welbeck’s fine goals-per-game ratio, will make for an intriguing debate in 18 months’ time when selection really matters.
But for now, the Arsenal striker picks himself. Souness spoke before of Welbeck being ‘the type of player you want to see do well’ and afterwards of the contrasting quality in the line of attack, palpably envious of all the qualities the striker had once more dazzled him with. While Derby’s Chris Martin ploughed a lone furrow, Welbeck showed steel in the tackle, and then the selfless side to his game, taking up a wide position before his withdrawal.
Olivier Giroud will have returned to action for Arsenal by the time England next regroup at St George’s in four months’ time, but Welbeck’s all-round game and knack of thriving off competition make dropping him unpalatable at present.
Less effective, but not surprising, was the failure of the Stewart Downing experiment. Eyebrows were raised when the 30-year-old was recalled to the international fold for the first time since Hodgson announced his first England squad, but in being deployed out of the position that has brought his own resurgence, Downing will have been frustrated by an ineffectual 45 minutes which may prove his last at this level.
Hodgson resisted playing him at the tip of a diamond formation working so effectively for Hammers boss Sam Allardyce, but he may argue the playmaker’s inclusion served its purpose. It is a characteristic of the current England manager not to brandish caps without lengthy deliberation, and with Downing adding his 35th over two years after his 34th, the belief among players in the autumn of their careers that good form doesn’t go unnoticed is alive and well.
Hodgson’s biggest test for 2015 will be to keep the players from boredom, believing in his management and vision throughout the inevitable challenges posed by club managers over the necessity of selection, and after the initial excitement of ‘a new era’ has again worn off. The past 12 months will forever be remembered for the nine days of torment in June, but with Rooney, Welbeck, Wilshere and Clyne at the fore, there are once more grounds for optimism.