Not all football matches can be educational experiences, but if we learned one thing from Sam Allardyce's first game in charge of England, it's that he really, really likes being England's manager. You'd think this should be the bare minimum for the job, but of his recent predecessors, neither Steve McClaren nor Roy Hodgson ever managed to dispel the sense that they were training ground coaches some distance from their comfort zones. Meanwhile, Fabio Capello treated the whole business with barely disguised contempt.
Allardyce, however, seems to simultaneously believe that this is the biggest job in the world and that he is the best — or perhaps biggest — man for the job. This adds up to a compelling unity of self-estimation and achievement. It also meant that come Sunday evening, he took his seat in England's dugout with the giddily self-satisfied air of a murderer who has just tied off the last loose end, rinsed the last of the acid from the bath, and just has to sit and wait for the insurance check to drop through the door.
And then, a few minutes later, he leapt up to stare in horror at Jordan Henderson as though the Liverpool man were a well-meaning local cop who'd just come to the door as part of a routine check. Nothing to worry about sir, just need to know where were you on the night of the fourth? Slovakia, sir? Very good. Was anybody there with you? Sir? Are you okay, sir? Can I come in, sir?
To say England's first-half performance was bad would be to slightly miss the point. Bad games can be fun, after all. England's first-half performance was dull, which is far less forgivable. Admittedly, the first international break of a two-year qualification cycle is hardly an occasion to stir the blood, particularly when it's an awkward away game against organized opposition that aren't really trying to score a goal of their own. But it was a little odd, thanks to the almost total absence of what we might call, with apologies to the English language, Allardicity.
Think of Allardyce teams — the ones that have worked, anyway — and you think of a variety of formations, but all generally geared towards defensive solidity and direct attacking. You think of rigorous planning and preparation, of teams that know more about their opponents than their opponents do themselves. And you think of an attitude, a seam of flinty resilience that runs through the team and can be found as much in Jay-Jay Okocha's flicks and feints as in Kevin Davies elbows. All of which sounded precisely geared to the place England found themselves after Euro 2016. No game plan? No spirit? Shown up by opponents with both? There's a bloke up in Sunderland who can help with that.
In theory. In practice, for 45 minutes or so we got some neat touches from Adam Lallana, another episode of Jordan Henderson: What Does He Do? Does He Do Things?? Let's Find Out!, and Harry Kane working through what looked to be quite the hangover. It was all very familiar to the summer, in both shape and style. Vague dominance, never quite shading over into threat; very much not what the situation called for. Most peculiar was the sight of Wayne Rooney attempting to play in four different midfield positions all at once, an ambitious plan that went just about as well as might be expected. Apparently even his manager was surprised, which does raise some questions. There's a free role, and then there's taking liberties.
That the second half was an improvement might not have mattered had England not nicked the winner; such is the nature of the beast. But it was, even before the goal came, and while the most important factor was probably Martin Skrtel's fourth bookable offence, the fact that England got something of a siege going towards the end boded well. So too did the substitutions: Dele Alli immediately started asking questions of a tiring defense and Theo Walcott, while he didn't have much success actually kicking the ball, at least managed to get into some good positions in which to fail to kick the ball.
It would be overly ambitious to take anything that happened in Slovakia as being a surefire indicator of anything that will happen next time England play, much less Russia 2018, should they get there. But at the same time, if a start is to mean anything beyond three points, then a game that opens blandly but concludes encouragingly, and ends on one of footballs greatest offerings, the last-minute winner, is something to be enjoyed.
And If nothing else, then Allardyce already has one thing over his predecessor. Even when the results were going nicely, Roy Hodgson never felt like the kind of manager who gets the luck. The luck that isn't quite luck, in the strictest sense, but at the same time isn't really anything else. The luck that even the greatest managers need from time to time, that brings those little moments that turn an after-match interview from "Well, we just couldn't get over the line" to "We got it, and we deserved it." One game in, and Allardyce has already been blessed.