Moments after England eased into the last 16 of this World Cup with a painlessly efficient 3-0 victory against Wales, Marcus Rashford jogged over to supporters and began to frenetically pump his fists. It was a moment of release – and sweet resurrection.
Having slayed the Welsh dragon, Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions will next take on the Lions of Teranga, as Senegal’s national team are called, on Sunday evening. Yet as England’s players celebrated the focus inevitably gravitated towards Rashford.
For much of last season the Manchester United player was hopelessly out of form. Some suggested that he had become distracted by campaigning for free school meals. Others that he should focus more on taking on football opponents instead of the government. Even his biggest fans wondered whether his mojo would ever return.
Yet on a balmy night in Doha Rashford not only scored England’s 100th World Cup finals goal, as well as his second and third of the tournament, but completed a remarkable comeback.
His first was a free-kick full of speed and dip and spite. The second was a shot that raced through the unfortunate Welsh goalkeeper Danny Ward’s legs. Afterwards Rashford pointed to the sky in celebration of his goals, as well as a close friend’s life.
“I lost one of my friends a couple of days ago,” he said. “He had quite a long battle with cancer. I’m pleased I scored for him, he was a big supporter and good friend of mine. He was someone who came into my life.”
The win was also aided and abetted by Phil Foden, who scored England’s second on the night, and justified his return to the side. Afterwards Southgate gave an upbeat assessment of both men.
“It’s great for Marcus,” he said. “He’s trained really well, and he could have had a hat-trick. His free-kick was an incredible strike; that’s what he’s capable of. At moments I thought both [Rashford and Foden] were a bit quiet in the first half. We decided to switch them at half-time and they responded really well.”
Afterwards England fans celebrated by taunting the Welsh supporters with “You’re going home in the morning”. That much is true, although their tournament was over long before the USA’s 1-0 victory against Iran sent the Americans into a knockout game against the Netherlands on Saturday.
Yet despite England topping Group B with seven points, the strange truth is observers are no nearer to getting an accurate gauge of their likely departure date.
The England team that bored the nation with a disarming display of dross against the USA, and again in the first half here, would surely be significant underdogs against Brazil, Spain or France.
Yet against Iran, and in flashes against Wales, they have shown enough to suggest that a quicker style of play, along with a dollop of luck, could give them a puncher’s chance.
We do know one thing, however: England’s potential road to the World Cup final is now less murky. On Sunday they face Senegal. Then, if a tournament rich in surprises behaves itself, France lie in wait in the quarter-finals. After that, Portugal or Germany may loom in the final four.
There are lots of pitfalls ahead, of course. And no one should get carried away. But the bookmakers make them fifth favourites, which feels about right.
Earlier all eyes had been on both sets of supporters, especially after England and Wales fans had slugged it out on the beaches of Tenerife. But their behaviour here could have carried a PG certificate.
They queued politely for complimentary St George and dragon flags, which they draped over their shoulders like superhero capes. They also mingled nicely on the concourse of the Ahmad bin Ali stadium. And when the anthems rang out – a spine-tingling Land of My Fathers and a full-blooded God Save The King – they were observed impeccably.
True, Wales fans later booed the anthem. And there were also familiar chants of “No surrender” from the England end, as if a small pocket of fans were determined to prove that dinosaurs still wander the earth. But still.
Early on, it wasn’t just the crowd that lacked an edge. The football did too. The quality was summed up by the defender Harry Maguire, who slalomed into the box before hitting a shot that shanked off his boot … and went for a throw in.
However, the momentum all changed on 50 minutes when Rashford hit his howitzer of a free-kick. From then on an ageing Wales side meekly surrendered.
Watching on were England fans Rebecca Knight and her husband, Peter, from Ipswich, who have spent the past fortnight on the cruise ship World Europa. “We’ve seen 11 games,” said Rebecca. “I think we’ll get knocked out in the quarter-finals. We’ll beat Senegal but lose to France. Kylian Mbappé is very clinical.”
Meanwhile long after the final whistle, Wales’ fans were still proudly serenading their players. They included Tom Paley from Cardiff, who tried to put his country’s performance in their first World Cup since 1958 into words. “This signifies the end of an era,” he said with a grimace. “Obviously it’s been a bit of a disappointment but it’s been great to have seen Wales in a World Cup.”
His friend James Cattle focused on the camaraderie among both sets of fans. “It’s different when you are far from home,” he said. “But there is still a sense that you are British and looking after each other.”
Perhaps in the stands. On the pitch England had other ideas.