England friendlies can possess a quality of hopelessness at the best of times and, as the country’s least experienced XI in 40 years meandered through the early exchanges against Wales, it was easy to question why the game was taking place at all.
By the end of the night, Jack Grealish had provided an answer.
If nothing else, the occasion should be remembered for Grealish announcing himself as an England player, following a full debut brimming with confidence and style, albeit against mediocre opposition.
The Aston Villa captain was comfortably the best player on the park, setting the hosts on the way to victory with the night’s first moment of quality – a cross for Dominic Calvert-Lewin to open the scoring – and adding much-needed dynamism to an otherwise one-paced England team.
Greater tests await for Grealish, starting with the visit of Belgium, ranked the No1 side in the world, on Sunday, but England manager Gareth Southgate will be faced with some tough decisions if the playmaker continues to perform at this level in an England shirt.
The 25-year-old has been made to wait for his opportunity, having declared for England over the Republic of Ireland five years ago. Despite an excellent 2019-20 campaign, Southgate was reluctant to pick Grealish until last month, believing there was no place for him in a squad spoiled for attacking options.
Grealish would not even have earned a maiden call-up in September had Marcus Rashford not withdrawn through injury and he may have missed out on this squad had Southgate considered Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden for selection.
Circumstances have played a part, but Grealish grasped his chance with both hands against Ryan Giggs’s side. In an interview with Standard Sport this week, he said he already felt at home with England – and he looked it, gliding across the pitch for 76 minutes and showing no signs of nerves.
After a pedestrian opening, he provided the spark, drifting out to the right and curling a inch-perfect cross into the path of debutant Calvert-Lewin.
“He has bags of ability and I knew that if he got in that position he would get the cross in [for my goal],” said the Everton striker.
Grealish deceived Ethan Ampadu to make a yard of space for the cross and the Chelsea youngster, who is on loan at Sheffield United, soon found himself chasing the playmaker’s shadow.
Like so many opponents, Ampadu eventually resorted to fouling his quarry and, eight minutes into the second half, Grealish won a free-kick in the right channel. Captain Kieran Trippier curled the ball to the back post, where a gleeful Conor Coady doubled England’s lead with his first international goal.
Danny Ings, who showed his versatility by starting on the right flank, added a third with an excellent overhead kick, as Wales slackened.
It was not so long ago that the only question over England’s front three was whether Jadon Sancho or Rashford deserved the third spot beside Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, but Grealish now threatens to make the conversation altogether more complex.
“[Grealish] is a different type of player to probably any that we have,” Southgate said. “Sancho and Raheem have the ability to dribble and beat people, but he does it in a different way. He is very comfortable receiving [the ball] under pressure.
“The area he got into for the [first] goal is where he should aim to be more regularly, because you want a player of his ability in and around the final third as much as you can. I keep stressing to him these are the areas of the game where he can make a difference and he did that, so I’m very pleased for him.”
As Southgate acknowledged, Grealish was not the only of England’s fringe players to impress and the debate over their strongest attack will intensify if Calvert-Lewin continues his rich vein of form.
Unsurprisingly not lacking confidence after an explosive start to the season, the Toffees forward bagged his 10th goal of the campaign with a thumping header and an impressive performance suggested he could make a fine understudy — or even challenger — to Kane.
With fixtures to follow against Belgium and then Denmark, on Wednesday, the wisdom of playing so much international football in the midst of the pandemic and the most hectic season in history remains in question.
England’s ecstatic goalscorers, their four debutants and particularly Grealish offered reason to think it might have proved worth it after all.