Bukayo Saka’s beaming smile was the indicator of just how times have changed for England since they last took their show on the road at home.
Arsenal’s 21-year-old – the brilliant talent Gunners fans call “Starboy” – gave the match ball a lingering kiss when he completed the first hat-trick of his career as the centrepiece of England’s 7-0 thrashing of North Macedonia at Old Trafford.
The whole stadium rose to Saka when he was substituted and did so again for England after a richly-entertaining romp to victory made it four wins from four in their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
It would take something wholly extraordinary for England not to qualify, especially with their toughest game done and dusted following victory against Italy in Naples.
This was all a far cry from the previous occasion, almost exactly a year ago, when England last played a home game away from Wembley.
It ended in a 4-0 thrashing against Hungary in a Uefa Nations League game at Molineux – a defeat and performance that produced such a toxic reaction from home fans that it factored into manager Gareth Southgate’s thoughts as he considered whether to extend his stay after the World Cup.
Southgate decided to carry on after England lost the quarter-final to France in Qatar – and just one look at the quality at his disposal makes it easy to see why.
We must apply the usual caveat here, though, as the standard of opposition, both here and in the 4-0 win in Malta on Friday, was decidedly sub-standard.
It is dealing with elite opposition where England’s problems have arisen and they may not get the chance to truly test themselves until they get to Germany for next year’s Euros.
It is still possible, however, to admire the quality of England’s work and it is beyond question that Southgate has scintillating attacking talent at his disposal.
And the star of this particular show was Saka, with one particular relationship building in this team and already showing signs of bringing rich dividends for England in times to come.
Southgate’s decision to deploy Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield was the big experiment and talking point of these two qualifiers. It has been a resounding success, especially as he appears totally tuned in to the same wavelength as Saka.
They combined in the build-up to England’s first goal in Malta and were involved in the real “X Factor” moment of this win against North Macedonia just after half-time.
As he did in Malta, Alexander-Arnold picked out Saka with a perfect long pass. This time Saka brought it under control, in the second instance with his chest, before lashing a spectacular volley past helpless North Macedonia keeper Stole Dimitrievski.
The obvious joy of his team-mates when he completed his treble – and when they sought him out with the match ball at the final whistle – showed Saka is not just lavishly talented, but extremely popular.
Harry Kane, as usual, was on target as he broke the deadlock with his 57th goal for England, then added another with a penalty. Marcus Rashford, so dangerous in the first half, scored from Jordan Henderson’s unselfish pass.
Southgate was able to deploy Manchester City’s Champions League-winning duo Phil Foden and Jack Grealish from the bench. The latter received a rapturous reception in the unlikely surroundings of Old Trafford, his reputation seemingly enhanced by those, shall we say, enthusiastic celebrations after the glory of victory over Inter Milan in Istanbul.
Jude Bellingham, regarded by many as England’s standout superstar of the future, was not involved as the teenager, who has moved to Real Madrid in a deal that could be worth £115m, was out through injury. He will come straight back in when fit.
Southgate now has a happy dilemma and time to find the answers, with qualification more of less assured and a real atmosphere of confidence and optimism building around the camp.
The team that beat North Macedonia will form the basis of England’s team for the Euros, although Chelsea’s Reece James, when fit, will challenge Kyle Walker at right-back.
Harry Maguire will surely need to be playing regularly, presumably at somewhere other than Manchester United, to keep those with eyes on his place at bay.
Foden and Grealish will make their claims for a place on the flanks, while Raheem Sterling will hope to find his best form after a poor season at Chelsea.
But it is in midfield where eyes are already being focused after the success of Alexander-Arnold’s switch to the advanced position he has occupied more recently for Liverpool.
Declan Rice will start and Bellingham’s place is non-negotiable, so will Southgate opt for the safer option of either Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson alongside Rice or will Alexander-Arnold be the answer?
It may be a thornier problem for Southgate against better teams, but it is a pleasant problem to have.
So much depends, very obviously, on how next season pans out but England could not be in better shape to qualify for Germany next summer.
Given England’s quality, there should be no excuse for them not only reaching Euro 2024, but going deep into it as they seek to go one better than their last crack at this tournament when they lost in the final to Italy at Wembley.