San Marino 0
Home team scorers
Away team scorers
Wayne Rooney 13 Pen
Cristian Brolli 30 o.g.
Ross Barkley 46
Theo Walcott 68
Harry Kane 77
Theo Walcott 78
It was a strange kind of place to feel like history was being made. England’s supporters filled the only two stands like it was a home match. The fans without tickets climbed the hills behind both goals to drape their flags from the trees and watch the inevitable mismatch through the branches, and when Wayne Rooney was substituted, just before the hour, there was voluble displeasure that he had been denied the chance to register his 50th international goal.
England had some fun in that last half an hour at the expense of a side that, until last November, were officially recognised as the worst international team on the planet and Rooney, one imagines, would have fancied himself against tiring opponents, just at the point of the match when San Marino were looking increasingly vulnerable.
Roy Hodgson explained afterwards that the substitution was planned in advance to keep Rooney fresh for England’s next assignment against Switzerland and, ultimately, it would be unfair to depict the manager as a spoilsport when his team have qualified for Euro 2016 with three games to spare. Rooney will get another opportunity to make the record his own on Tuesday and, as Hodgson pointed out, the achievement will probably feel even sweeter if it arrives at Wembley.
Rooney’s celebration, having tucked in the 13th-minute penalty to tie with Sir Bobby Charlton’s 49-goal haul, reflected the moderate standard of the opposition on an evening when San Marino reminded us why they have only won one match, against Liechtenstein, in 25 years of trying.
The only surprise, perhaps, was that England did not add even more goals but, ludicrous as it might sound, San Marino could actually reflect that they had played above themselves, and feel reasonably satisfied with how the game panned out.
Their coach, Pierangelo Manzaroli, talked about it being a “beautiful first half” and was indignant about the penalty decision that gave Rooney the chance to open the scoring. England’s second was an own goal, inadvertently headed in by Cristian Brolli, but it was always likely that San Marino would flag after the break and when Ross Barkley made it 3-0 at the start of the second half, it was close to becoming a turkey shoot in that period. One substitute, Theo Walcott, scored twice and another, Harry Kane, delicately chipped in the game’s best goal.
For long spells, England played within themselves and when the imbalance of talent is this extreme it is always difficult to gauge the quality of the display. There was, however, a bright performance from Nathaniel Clyne, operating as an attacking right-back and advancing like a second winger at times. Jamie Vardy will have played on better pitches during his days roughing it in the Sunday alehouse leagues around Rotherham, but his speed and directness made him an awkward opponent, without seriously threatening a goal of his own.
Luke Shaw continued his fine start to the season, always eager to join England’s attacks on the left, and Joe Hart’s goalkeeping was, well, of a type where he could finish the match with his kit still looking pristine. Hart made one catch, cleared the ball upfield a few times and patrolled his penalty area as a long-distance spectator. Then, after 85 minutes, the substitute Danilo Rinaldi let fly from 20 yards out and, lo and behold, there was a shot on target. It might not sound much but San Marino, lest it be forgotten, have managed 17 goals in the past quarter of a century. A moment like that represents a decent evening’s work at this level.
For the most part, it was simply an exercise in damage limitation. San Marino operated with a five-man defence but all four midfielders played in their own half, too, and their striker, Andy Selva, had a peculiar role. Selva wandered around the centre circle, hoping the ball might occasionally come to him, but knowing deep down that there would probably be only half a dozen times in the entire match when he would have a touch. San Marino are the only team in the qualifying stages who have yet to score, but still merited some rich applause from their small knot of supporters.
For England, Jonjo Shelvey showed his ability on the ball and John Stones solidified the already firm impression that, out of all England’s central defenders, he is the best equipped when it comes to bringing the ball forward.
Barkley’s goal was a neatly taken header from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross, but it was only when the substitutions were made that England really started to blitz the collection of amateurs, students, bank clerks and barmen whose sole purpose was to keep the score down.
Walcott’s first goal was turned in at the far post after Vardy’s low centre and his second was a crisp finish from Barkley’s pass. In between, Kane scored with a beautifully taken chip over the goalkeeper, Aldo Simoncini, in the manner of someone determined to show his self-confidence had not been diminished by a non-scoring start to the season for Tottenham Hotspur.
Walcott looked sharp and lively, even if he turned another presentable chance wide, and Fabian Delph’s introduction gave England another player with the pace to get behind San Marino’s defence. England are the first team to qualify; the truth is, it was never in doubt.