Richard Buxton: A night when England triumphed against racism
Three Lions stand tall against monkey chants and Nazi salutes to hand Bulgarians a chastening 6-0 loss
Gareth Southgate made the rare mistake of underestimating his England players.
He questioned whether they were capable of becoming legitimate Euro 2020 contenders.
They are actually closer to the reckoning of next summer's Finals than Southgate gave them credit for, after thrashing Bulgaria 6-0 yesterday morning (Singapore time).
In the face of abhorrent racism in the Vasil Levski Stadium, the Three Lions stood defiant.
Unlike previous generations, they did not turn the other cheek to the vile monkey chants and Nazi salutes. They challenged it, called it out and still were able to triumph through football.
England already knew what to expect on their latest visit to Sofia. Eight years earlier, three coloured players in their starting line-up were racially abused in another European qualifier.
Southgate's players also had first-hand experience of the subject from March's 5-1 win over Montenegro.
The prospect of an inevitable repeat provoked debates about a team walk-off.
Rather than pander to the whim of a disorderly home crowd, however, they stuck to both their principles and the rules in the Bulgarian capital.
Staying on the pitch denied the hosts a chance to use discriminatory behaviour as an escape from their own footballing inadequacy.
Uefa's debut of their three-step protocol for tackling racism might have played into Bulgaria's hands.
Threats of postponement delivered by the PA system to a stadium already partially closed due to previous racism acts served as an incentive to continue rather than a deterrent.
Had the game been abandoned, a default 3-0 scoreline would have masked a multitude of sins on the terraces, allowing Krasimir Balakov's side to be spared the blushes of a chastening defeat.
Crucially, it would have airbrushed the diversity of England's four goal-scorers - Marcus Rashford, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane - from the history books.
Another prolific victory would have met the same fate.
Since the turn of the year, the World Cup semi-finalists have racked up five goals or more in half of their eight fixtures - no mean feat when considering that it took them 76 games across the previous five years to achieve that figure.
Tyrone Mings' stellar international debut, similarly, would have fallen under the radar. In addition to highlighting the racist abuse to match officials, the Aston Villa defender did not put a foot wrong as proven by a clean sheet and a litany of impressive personal statistics.
He completed 100 per cent of attempted take-ons, won every one of his aerial duels and recorded a passing accuracy of 96 per cent.
Few of England's illustrious centre-backs have matched those numbers in more comfortable surroundings, let alone in this ultimate baptism of fire.
But Mings and his teammates are not cut from the same cloth as those that went before.
They are empowered and self-aware in ways which the "Golden Generation" often lacked. Taking a stand is no longer considered to be a sign of either weakness or insolence.
Southgate's current crop are also a shining beacon of diversity rather than predictability.
The days of the English Premier League's top-four clubs maintaining an unhealthy grip on the make-up of the national side are a distant memory - with players from Bournemouth to Borussia Dortmund, and everywhere in between, included in the routine deliberations.
"Football is all about responding to setbacks," Southgate said following last Friday's defeat by the Czech Republic. Five days later, England need one more point to qualify for Euro 2020.
Staring down the greatest setback of all means football might be finally coming home.
- Bulgaria 0 England 6
- Kosovo 2 Montenegro 0