Ross Barkley’s sublime moment lights up England on a listless night

The Everton midfielder’s pass to Theo Walcott for the opening goal was something to get England fans and Roy Hodgson excited about against Estonia

On a night that even the FA’s half-time turn, the relentlessly garrulous Chris Kamara, described as “meaningless” – thanks Chris, we’ll be in touch – there were still some moments of grace. Well, there was one anyway in an otherwise completely forgettable first half. It was worth waiting for, though, the product of Ross Barkley , a starter for England in central midfield in what was ultimately a lukewarm 2-0 defeat of Estonia.

At times it can be easy to dwell on what footballers – particularly callow but talented England footballers – cannot do. Here, though, after 45 minutes of nominally competitive football Barkley produced a pass for England’s opening goal that will live long in the memory of those sitting behind the angle of the ball, probably longer than anything else in England’s all-conquering qualifying campaign.

Taking the ball from Raheem Sterling, Barkley stepped inside with his head up, shifted his feet to one side and stroked a perfectly weighted nudge through the legs of Karol Mets and into the path of Theo Walcott, who had timed his run so acutely that only the fussiest advanced robot linesman could have flagged him offside.

Walcott finished neatly, then turned and ran straight to Barkley. Never mind the opponents, never mind the room temperature atmosphere, it was simply a wonderful pass, a moment of instant, imaginative incision that reflected Barkley’s encouraging start to the game, but which also seemed strangely exotic in the context not just of this game but many others.

When was the last time a player in an England shirt played a pass like that – not some skimming, swirling, banzai cross-field screamer or the usual orthodox cross into space but a piece of mischief, a lovely little malandro sniff of a pass?

England and thrilling one-off passes: it is not an instant flood of golden memories. David Beckham used to play the odd sneaky reverse whip scuttling back away from goal. Paul Scholes probably conjured up one or two. Few passes for any team anywhere have bettered Teddy Sheringham’s princely little nudge to Alan Shearer to score against Holland at Euro 96.

But nothing quite as impish springs to mind recently. It was an Iniesta-ish pass, a moment of cold, clear, bright-eyed creative spark. Who knows? He might never do it again. But it was a treat to see him do it here, a moment that seemed to freeze even this low pressure, semi-event of a game and a pass that nobody inside Wembley but Barkley had seen.

England had started quickly enough before settling into a kind of fretful lassitude only vaguely taken up with events on the pitch. On paper this was a team well-stocked with pace and youthful vim. As a front five Harry Kane, Walcott, Sterling, Barkley and Adam Lallana promised a blend of touch, mobility and muscle, a glimpse of the “polyvalent” attack Hodgson has occasionally rather cautiously mentioned.

It seems likely England would rejig the central midfield against stronger opponents, with Barkley seen as a little too flighty in that deep-lying pivot role for the kind of occasion where a whiff of space can kill you. Here, though, he was an excellent replacement for Michael Carrick, absent with a tender groin, in a position that can bring out his most exciting qualities. There were decisive touches, a low shot saved by Mihkel Aksalu and some assertive breaking up of the play.

Barkley has such a lovely upright running style, the ability to burst away into space with the ball safely velcroed to his toes. At times one wonders if all he lacks is a little more assertiveness and some greater certainty in his passing. Hodgson has certainly winced in the past at the ease with which Barkley has given the ball away, what he described afterwards as those moments where he “struts his stuff or keeps it simple”.

Here, though, Barkley was calm in possession, releasing Raheem Sterling with one lovely nudged through- pass, waggling his foot over the ball matador-style on the run and generally seeming aware of those around him. English football has not exactly specialised in complete-package midfielders down the years. Instead even the best tend to have obvious strengths to compensate for certain weaknesses. Often it is the same obvious strengths as Barkley: surging runs, power, a range of ambitious attacking passes, and often the same weaknesses: a lack of natural covering intelligence, a vague sense of positional slackness. Oddly these often sound like the kind of vices a Premier League footballer should be able to work on. Odder still, they never really seem to.

As the second half wore on Barkley remained England’s most explosive presence in possession. Once he picked up the ball and ran 40 yards at the retreating defence before finally falling over with Sterling and Kane both screaming for a pass. Moments later he showed his wonderful lateral spring, cutting inside and then outside two defenders and shooting wide.

Barkley left the field shortly after England’s second goal, having completed 90% of his 73 passes, had five shots, dribbled past his man five times and generally given an energetic, occasionally high-class, performance against dogged but limited opponents. Best of all on a night with only a few encouraging moments, England’s most engaging midfielder provided one that pretty much made the occasion on its own.