It was, in more than one sense, an evening where everyone could play happy families. England may never again be welcomed into an opponent’s bosom as they were by the people of Kosovo in Pristina. Meanwhile, there will, one hopes, be no further occasions upon which Raheem Sterling is required to reintegrate after starting a fracas with a teammate.
There was never any doubt Sterling would start here after serving his time during the evisceration of Montenegro and the biggest concern, for those fearing the effects of any unrest in a generally docile camp, was that his return would go off without any hint of simmering tension. Job done, then, as far as anybody could tell.
By the end of what became, a touch harshly, a procession there had been regular opportunities to check everyone was on the same page. Three goals in the final 11 minutes, two of them laid on by Sterling, meant three sets of handshakes all round – there was hardly a call for anything too exuberant, in the game’s context – and at full-time he made a point of seeking out Harry Kane to offer his regards.
England’s stress levels will be tested far more severely next summer and this rarely looked like the kind of event that would expose any underlying cracks. Instead, with four months until the squad next gathers, there will be a sense of relief that the ship seems nicely on course. If a week of crisis brings 11 goals without reply and the smoothest of qualifications for a major tournament, what might transpire when everything is smelling of roses?
It would have taken quite something to disrupt the loving vibes around Kosovo’s smart, recently-renovated home ground. Whatever the full truth of the events that led to his one-match suspension, Sterling was only ever going to be among allies here. The names of him and his teammates were bellowed out with gusto by the home crowd in a call-and-response routine led by the stadium announcer before kick-off; it would be a wonder if opponents have been treated that way anywhere before.
But England’s supporters and delegation had been received with quite humbling levels of hospitality all weekend. If this was essentially a dead rubber, their hosts had committed to making it the friendliest of friendlies and nobody walking through a vibrant Kosovan capital in the preceding hours could doubt the appetite to create an atmosphere of rare mutual affirmation.
“Thank you England, god bless you England,” the PA man shouted, referring explicitly to the UK’s role in bringing peace to the country in 1999. “We always appreciate your support in the most difficult days – 20 years on, we are here as equals.” The sentiment was heartwarming and perfectly captured the occasion’s tone; in a purely footballing sense, however, England were tasked with proving that its latter part was not entirely true just yet.
The stakes were twofold: to win the group and avoid any drop in seeding for next summer; and, perhaps more significantly, to swiftly show all was well with Sterling’s world. What a strange distraction his bust-up with Joe Gomez has brought to a period that should have brought little more than satisfaction at the light work Gareth Southgate’s players have made of their qualifying group; threatening to at least compromise the painstaking effort made to ensure England’s meet-ups brim with purpose and positivity.
It took some time for those facets to show themselves in their play. For long periods this looked very much like the exhibition game it had more or less become, both sides allowing each other spells of possession that generally went awry at the behest of a slippy, bobbly playing surface that made slick passing difficult.
When England did manage some, Sterling took aim in the box and was denied by a good save by his sometime clubmate, Aro Muric, who is on loan at Nottingham Forest from Manchester City. Pens might been sharpened at that point for a duel in which Muric constantly thwarted Sterling – not the first time of late that a confrontation with a colleague had ended unsatisfactorily, and all that – but instead the storyline became rather more obvious. It was one of England again showing no mercy, cutting loose in the end stages of a game they had controlled without really going through the gears; it has become a welcome habit and Sterling’s perseverance fitted the mould.
Just before the interval he could be seen tracking back assiduously to prevent Kosovo winning a corner. After a quiet, earnest night’s work became more fun as spaces opened up. Surging into one of them, he cut back the ball from which Kane struck a post. When the pair combined again – via a slip from Amir Rrahmani – Kane converted to settle any nagging doubts that a neat but blunt Kosovo would forage an equaliser. Then he passed to Marcus Rashford, who produced the finish of a player whose confidence is fast returning. After getting everyone into such a bind, Sterling was now dishing out the good news to all who wanted some.
Southgate, who had been candid enough in suggesting Sterling might not be feeling especially happy, will hope that is that. Sterling departed the pitch with the arm of Kieran Trippier around his shoulder, a smile streaking across his face. As he did so, the home fans had unveiled a banner reading “Faleminderit” – “thank you” in Albanian. For them there was no outcome that would abate the huge sense of pride to which this fixture had given rise; and after the week that was, everything went just as England and Sterling would have wanted too.