Jermain Defoe became the first England player to score a hat-trick at the rebuilt national stadium last night and said his rewards were the "sweetest" of his career as Fabio Capello's side sparked their qualification campaign for Euro 2012 in some style.
The Tottenham Hotspur forward had been expected to miss the visit of Bulgaria, together with the more daunting trip to Switzerland on Tuesday, to undergo surgery on a long-standing groin complaint. Yet he passed himself fit to join Capello's squad last week and, combining superbly with Wayne Rooney, duly swelled his international goal tally to 15 in 44 appearances.
"It's difficult to find the words to describe the feeling you get when you score a hat-trick for your country," said Defoe, who became the first England player since Alan Shearer against Luxembourg in 1999 to score three in this arena. "It's just the best feeling in the world. It's the sweetest hat-trick of my career, without doubt ... a special night.
"I thought I'd miss out through the injury but I've put the surgery on hold and might not have to have it at all yet. Over the last few months of last season my groin was a bit sore. I thought it was just fatigue but I felt it in the World Cup and a bit pre-season. You start to worry – I think Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard may have had the same thing [both have since had surgery] – and it felt a bit sore tonight but I've worked really hard in the gym doing a lot of core work to strengthen the area and it felt good.
"It was always my decision whether or not to have the operation but I always want to play and put myself up for selection when I can. I'd spoken to the physios at the club but I told them: 'You have to trust me. I know my own body.' I didn't get any reaction from it tonight."
Defoe did depart three minutes from time having been kicked on an ankle but will be fit for Tuesday's game in Basle. Michael Dawson is expected to miss that match, however, after appearing to damage knee ligaments when falling awkwardly early in the second period on his first start for his country. The Spurs defender was carried from the pitch and will be assessed today once the swelling on the joint begins to recede, with the prognosis not promising.
Capello pointed to Gary Cahill and Matthew Upson as potential replacements next week and reserved praise for his excellent goalkeeper Joe Hart, though he drew most encouragement from the slick teamwork exhibited by Defoe and Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United forward was asked to play in a slightly more withdrawn role by his manager – "just in front of their two central midfielders," said the Italian – and played a part in all four of England's goals.
"When you play with a new partner it can take a bit of time for it to gel but Wayne's a great player to play alongside," added Defoe. "He works so hard for you and, if you make the runs, he will find you. After I scored my second he said: 'Now go and try to get your third.' To have that from someone playing with you is fantastic.
"Everything seemed to click tonight and it was really enjoyable. I spoke to Ian Wright before the game and he said: 'You're due a hat-trick.' He texted me after the game and said: 'I love you JD, well done.' When I was younger I used to study him and watch his movement and finishing and he was at West Ham when I was there as a 16-year-old. We used to practise movement and finishing after training and it has definitely stuck with me. You have to get into positions and work hard. I felt sharp and did that tonight."