LONDON (Reuters) - England’s players lined up to congratulate each other following the win over Slovenia which assured World Cup qualification on Thursday but when they turned to acknowledge the crowd, they saw nothing more than thousands of empty red seats.
Wembley Stadium, which had been barely half full all night, had largely been vacated with only a 1,000 or so hardy souls remaining to salute Gareth Southgate’s squad.
A winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time — as Harry Kane provided to rubberstamp England’s ticket to Russia — could normally have been expected to spark joyous scenes and dreams of World Cup glory.
Instead, it arrived in almost surreal circumstances with the majority of the crowd having already lost interest in a match so puerile that fans spent most of the second half amusing themselves by constructing and flying paper aeroplanes.
It was all a bit different to the atmosphere at Old Trafford almost 16 years ago to the day when David Beckham’s last-gasp free kick earned England a 2-2 draw with Greece to seal a place at the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.
Then, it sparked a wave of euphoria and triggered months of rising expectations for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side, who were supposed to have provided a match for anyone.
The following year it all went wrong in Shizuoka as England bowed out at the quarter-final stage to 10-man Brazil.
Another quarter-final defeat came four years later before Germany ensured an earlier exit in South Africa, and at the 2014 tournament in Brazil, England failed to even survive the group stage after defeats to Italy and Uruguay.
Last year’s Euro 2016 exit by Iceland sucked any remaining hope out of even the most diehard England optimists, so much so that Thursday’s laboured 1-0 win over Slovenia was greeted with casual indifference and mockery.
After watching England huff and puff against such modest opposition, many fans would have left wondering whether there is actually any point to booking hotels in Russia next year.
Manager Southgate insisted afterwards the only thing that mattered was England had qualified.
In that sense he is right, but he could also have said it was “blindingly obvious” that the side were way off challenging the best teams in world football.
Had he done so, few would have disagreed with that healthy dose of realism.
“England are a million miles away from winning the World Cup,” former England defender Phil Neville, summarising for the BBC, said. “The performance tonight proved that.
“If you can’t play against Slovenia at home, you can’t play on the world stage.”
Former England winger Chris Waddle, a member of the side that reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1990, said the display against Slovenia was “very, very poor”.
Despite the gloom, England do possess a world class striker in Kane, who has now scored 11 goals in 22 appearances, pace and skill in Manchester United winger Marcus Rashford and bags of potential in Dele Alli.
However, a midfield chronically short of imagination and a back four that, despite conceding only three goals in nine Group F games, will be vulnerable to more potent attacks, means England head to Russia as rank outsiders.
“There are lots of question marks,” Waddle said. “We want them to do well but you have to be realistic. There is not a lot of difference between England and Slovenia.”
After negotiating a mediocre qualifying group, England will have a chance to test themselves against better opposition when Germany and Brazil turn up for friendlies at Wembley next month.
If any lowering of England’s expectations were still required, those two heavyweight nations should provide it.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by John O'Brien