Fabio Capello's decision to drop Emile Heskey and start Jermain Defoe paid off against Slovenia as the striker volleyed home to seal England's progress with a 1-0 win in Port Elizabeth.
Landon Donovan's injury-time effort in Pretoria meant the outcome was not exactly what England wanted in Group C, as it means they finish second and leaves them in the same quarter of the draw as Diego Maradona's dangerous Argentinians. But the main thing is they are still there.
With the notable exception of Wayne Rooney, who did not look impressed to be replaced by Joe Cole, and the fact their goals difference read only one, England found themselves again, producing all the verve and fire their manager knows they are so capable of.
Days of rancour gave way to the sheer exhilaration of seeing a team play in the
manner of old and though their profligacy ensured there were some nervy moments
to survive before victory could be achieved, in the end they made it.
The men who combined to give England that crucial, crucial goal were both exorcising a personal ghost.
It has almost been forgotten it is so long ago but right at the beginning of
England's World Cup, Defoe was a starter for Capello.
Hauled off after a goalless 45 minutes against Andorra in Barcelona, Defoe was
condemned to the role of impact substitute for the remainder of the qualifiers,
admittedly scoring three times in the process.
Milner's wound is much fresher. Always a Capello favourite, the Aston Villa man
was asked to plug a hole on the left of England's midfield for the opening
encounter with the United States.
Given a right old chasing by Carlos Bocanegra, the 24-year-old was hauled off
after half an hour and must have wondered if he would see any more action in
Capello is intensely loyal though. Deciding he needed more solidity defensively
than Aaron Lennon can provide, the Italian turned to Milner for the right-sided
His early contribution was riddled with mistakes. But the cross he swung deep
into the Slovenia box midway through that opening period was almost
Defoe had made his way into the danger zone, like any instinctive marksman
would, got just in front of Marko Suler and stuck out his leg, prodding the ball
goalwards with enough power to get it past Samir Handanovic, who did nearly make
It had taken Defoe 23 minutes to achieve what Heskey had managed once in eight
years; a competitive goal.
Visibly, the pressure lifted from English shoulders. The high-tempo, quick passing, tigerish pressing game Capello had yearned for, and which temperatures of a South African winter suit so well suddenly appeared, and so did the opportunities.
Frank Lampard and skipper Steven Gerrard had the first couple before half-time,
the Liverpool man knowing he would have scored if he had put more power behind a
side-footed effort that failed to beat Handanovic after a hitherto quiet Rooney
had provided the superb square ball.
Capello cut a frustrated figure when, eight yards out and completely unmarked,
Defoe made no contact after Barry had lofted a pass into a Slovenia penalty area
in a state of confusion thanks to some selfless running from Rooney.
John Terry brought a brilliant save out of Handanovic when he rose to meet
Barry's corner at the far post before Rooney struck the base of a post after his
unchecked run into the penalty area had been spotted by Lampard.
It was sumptuous fare lifted directly from the Premier League, the kind of
football that prompted Capello to make his "crazy'' claim that England could
reach the final of this grand and prestigious tournament in Soccer City on July
In a week for apologies and forgiveness, the England supporters responded by
showing they bore no hard feelings for Rooney's rant in Cape Town by chanting
his name with gusto, although on the second occasion it was for their talisman's
exit - unhappily - to make way for Joe Cole to make his long-awaited bow.
Amid the euphoria at finding a team, one fairly large problem was being
overlooked. England's lead remained stuck at one and could so easily be snatched
Had first Terry, then Glen Johnson, not thrown themselves in front of Slovenian
shots, the smallest country in the tournament would have had their equaliser and
England would have been out.
For Slovenia, events elsewhere would give them cause for huge regret. For
England, pride was restored - and a sigh of relief could be breathed.