Trailing to a dubious goal against a Hungary team ranked 62nd in the world, that horrible World Cup hangover seemed set to linger right into the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.
But, on the night Fabio Capello signalled the end of David Beckham’s international career, the man currently wearing the armband burst forward, scoring twice in four minutes to give the Three Lions a victory they so desperately needed.
With decent performances from Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs and Bobby Zamora, who came agonisingly close to a debut goal, and an excellent save from Joe Hart to deny Zoltan Gera an equaliser at the death, there were enough positives to retain some optimism that the bid to atone for this summer’s World Cup debacle can get off to a positive start against Bulgaria and Switzerland next month.
In ending Beckham’s international career in such a low-key manner, Capello could almost have been encapsulating exactly how he sees England moving forward from this point.
There will be no blaze of glory, not even if his side go on to reach the finals in Poland and the Ukraine with eight wins from eight without conceding a goal.
No-one will be building anyone up, or talking about a golden generation.
What went on in South Africa was simply too depressing to be forgotten, the well of goodwill has completely run dry.
That is not to say there is no feeling. The lack of booing – reserved mainly for John Terry, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney until the whole team got it in the neck after a goalless first-half – is evidence of a genuine desire for the Three Lions to succeed.
It is the trust that is missing. And as Steven Gerrard correctly pointed out yesterday, that will take weeks and months to restore, not one victory against Hungary, no matter how many pointers to the future there were.
If the goal Wayne Rooney thought he had scored inside three minutes had been given, it could have been a decent night for the Three Lions.
Detached from the target man Capello welded him to, Rooney raced onto Gerrard’s through-ball and lashed the ball home from the edge of the area.
Unfortunately, unlike that fateful day in Bloemfontein, which Capello still feels now was the scene of a robbery that cost the Italian and his team their shot at glory, the officials got it right. Rooney was half a yard beyond the final man and the goal was disallowed.
Thereafter it was time to take solace in individual performances.
Had Walcott produced the incisive running on show in the opening 45 minutes in those warm-up games against Mexico and Japan, he would surely not have been left in tears as the squad departed.
It was Walcott’s cut-back that presented fellow winger Adam Johnson – also axed from Capello’s provisional group of 30 – with a clear sight of goal.
Johnson was in enough space but snatched at the opportunity and drove it over the bar.
Former Crystal Palace keeper Gabor Kiraly tipped Gerrard’s curling free-kick over the bar just past the half-hour and a Rooney piledriver was deflected wide after that.
But half-time brought the second seismic shift for England following Beckham’s removal from the scene.
Once Capello had made his three substitutions – giving debuts to Michael Dawson, Kieran Gibbs and Bobby Zamora, he was left with seven out of his 11 players having a grand total of 21 caps between them.
Such inexperience should render results irrelevant in a friendly.
But it is never that way with England.
So, when Dawson’s slip allowed Gera to set an attack in motion that ended with Phil Jagielka turning the ball into his own goal, the boos started again. Had those supporters been watching a replay of the incident, they might have turned their ire on the French officials who, in contrast to their colleagues from Uruguay this summer, saw the ball crossing the line when Dawson had in fact cleared.
Such inconsistencies could not have been lost on Capello, who sat impassively in his seat and remained there, even after Gerrard had weaved his magic.
The last time the Liverpool captain raced away after scoring for England, it was right at the start of the World Cup, when his goal against the United States had given his team the perfect start.
Tonight, there was real venom in his reaction after belting a dipping shot into the Hungary net.
Four minutes later, Gerrard swivelled superbly and tucked home a second. It was the kind of captain’s response of which Beckham would have been proud.