Harry Kane dug England out of a hole and secured a last-gasp 2-1 win over Tunisia in their World Cup opener.
Gareth Southgate, who named former Sheffield United duo Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire in his starting eleven alongside ex-Barnsley defender John Stones, could hardly have wished for a better start to this Group G clash in Volgograd, where his side capped a start displaying skill, verve and energy with an early goal from their captain.
Yet the officials managed to topple the insects as England’s biggest irritant as Ferjani Sassi netted from a controversially awarded penalty that somehow was not followed up by spot-kicks at the other end as the video assistant referees ignored the manhandling of Kane.
But what Southgate’s men lack in experience they make up for in spirit, with Tottenham striker Kane nodding home his second at the far post to clinch a dramatic late victory which sent their travelling support wild.
“It was tough, they’re a tough opponent,” Maguire said. “During the first-half, we should have been clear and out of sight but we stuck to our plan, stuck to our shape and we knew we’d get a chance.”
It is the first time England have opened a major tournament with a win since 2006 but it did not need to be this hard given Kane directed home an 11th-minute opener.
Bold, direct and hungry in attack, Southgate’s men were then hit by a sucker-punch as referee Wilmar Roldan pointed to the spot after Walker swung an arm in the box.
Sassi fired home and frustration grew as the VAR did not interject after Kane was dragged to the deck. He also failed to do so from a similar incident at the start of the second period.
“I think, in the Premier League, I’d have probably got away with it,” Walker, Maguire’s fellow Steelphalt Academy graduate, admitted. “In tried to shield the ball but in future I’ll probably head it away. We played some good stuff but we’re not the finished article. The main thing is we got the three points.”
Jesse Lingard hit the post in between those controversial incidents but chances dried up in a testing second half before Kane’s stoppage-time heroics won it for England.
Southgate entrusted nine World Cup debutants at the sparsely filled Volgograd Arena and was rewarded with an amazing start.
Lingard and Harry Maguire had early attempts, before before Raheem Sterling somehow failed to end his 983-day wait for an international goal by turning wide at the back post.
Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassen required treatment after hurting his shoulder during the latter opportunity and was forced off in the 15th minute - by which point England had found a way past him.
Ashley Young’s corner was met by a powerful Stones header, which Hassen denied superbly only for Kane to pounce and turn home his first goal at a major tournament.
Maguire saw a header kept out with Tunisia on the back foot, but cumbersome moments at the back gave the North Africans hope.
Sassi saw an attempt from the edge of the box go wide via a deflection, before referee Roldan raised eyebrows. Walker jogged away after ushering Fakhreddine Ben Youssef away from a cross, but the defender’s use of an arm led the Colombian to point to the spot and Sassi fired home.
It was a sucker-punch that could have been compounded had more sloppy play been capitalised upon as England became a shell of the side that started so superbly.
Kane was fuming after being dragged to the deck by Sassi at a corner. Tunisia managed to clear and somehow escaped VAR.
Just before the break Lingard’s bright but wasteful first half was completed by beating Farouk Ben Mustapha to the ball, only for his effort to come back off the post.
The second half started with Yassine Meriah wrestling Kane to the deck at a corner but that was again ignored by the officials in the stadium and watching from afar.
Kieran Trippier and Young failed with free-kicks as England displayed a worrying lack of creativity, but they made up for it with their never-say-die attitude at the death.
Maguire nodded on a corner to the far post and Kane was there to glance home, to the delight of all connected to England.