There was something very familiar about all this. The sight of a winger bustling to the byline and, even as he pulled the ball back across goal, being absolutely convinced the net would be billowing by the time his momentum had carried him on to the artificial turf ringing the pitch. Jermain Defoe tends to offer that calibre of reassurance, forever loitering as he does in enemy territory spanning the width of the posts, the six-yard box only ever a dart away, defenders constantly on edge. Cue that trademark celebration, arms stretched wide, as the striker trotted towards the crowd. It was as if he had never been away.
Except, of course, he had – and, plenty would argue, for far too long. The scenario which yielded England’s lead midway through the first half on Sunday might have been plucked from the last occasion when Defoe had scored for his country at Wembley, so identikit a goal did it feel from a player who has been prospering like this for years.
Retreat back to September 2010 and his first goal of a hat-trick in a European qualifier against Bulgaria had also been thumped into the roof of the net from Ashley Cole’s hooked centre from the left, albeit at the other end of the ground. The striker’s last goals for his country, a brace pilfered with precision against San Marino in Serravalle on his most recent start, had come a distant 1,465 days ago.
Yet here he was at 34 demonstrating that all the instinctive bite and canny positioning remain as sharp as ever, even after years in the wilderness at this level. The ease with which he found space from a panicked Linas Klimavicius, holding back while the defender felt compelled to snuff out the ball at source, has sustained his prolific Premier League career at four top-flight clubs. The finish flew beyond Ernestas Setkus, establishing the striker as England’s sixth oldest scorer and rendering the goalkeeper’s smart save down at his near-post from the same player moments earlier rather less meaningful.
“It’s good to be back,” said the forward as he conducted his round of man-of-the-match interviews. “As for what happens next, I’ll go back to my club, keep my head down and see what happens.” Gareth Southgate will have learned nothing new from the flash of brilliance which eased the home side ahead. This was not a rookie seeking to establish a reputation, and even the manager said he would have “put my house on him scoring at some stage today”.
“Defoe did what Defoe does,” said the captain, Joe Hart. Yet the veteran’s potential involvement against Scotland hardly feels outlandish and the manager was even coy about his chances of making the World Cup in Russia, when the forward will be months away from his 36th birthday. The likes of Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and even, possibly, Wayne Rooney will hope to have thrust themselves back ahead of the older man in the pecking order by then.
But this manager retains a pragmatic streak and has already demonstrated a willingness to pick, or omit, players on form alone. The veteran had merited inclusion for those 14 Premier League goals for the division’s bottom club, Sunderland, and, in truth, he had always represented England’s likeliest route to reward.
England had been braced for Lithuania to clog up the play, all stodgy defence and only occasional forays upfield on the counterattack. Defoe, of all Southgate’s current options, with Kane and Sturridge crocked, was the striker who might best exploit a yard of space or snaffle up a half-chance. The logic went that Southgate could throw on the blistering pace of Vardy and Rashford to charge at tiring opponents late on. Low key as much of this felt, the plan essentially worked a treat.
Defoe is a luxury to whom Southgate will be delighted to turn. It is easy to measure his longevity in terms of the personnel who have come and gone over the span of his 13-year England career. He had replaced Darius Vassell on his debut in a friendly against Sweden in Gothenburg under Sven-Goran Eriksson, a game in which the current national manager earned the last of his 57 caps as a second-half substitute. But his display here, ripping a shot just wide of a post and revelling in a contest against the side ranked 107 in the world, justified his inclusion among the current crop. It was almost a release from the toils he so regularly endures, a refreshing change from a relegation scrap.
Lithuania, of course, are hardly the most obdurate of opponents but England, and their strikers, did what was expected of them. Arguably Defoe’s biggest challenge of the evening was to keep his own emotions in check as he led out Bradley Lowery, the five-year-old suffering from neuroblastoma who now counts the forward as his “best mate”, before kick-off. Hart had ushered the pair to the front of the line, Defoe offering the young Sunderland fan words of reassurance as they entered the arena. “You can imagine how I felt doing that, having done it with my club as well,” he said.
Lowery had joined the majority in applause on the striker’s substitution just before the hour-mark. His hero had stuck to the prescribed script.