It amounted to a quite ludicrous ending. Stalemate beckoned in Reykjavik before an ending of two penalties, one goal, the game’s second red card and a result that England could enjoy.
Raheem Sterling’s spot kick went in, Birkir Bjarnason’s was skied into the empty stands and England began their Nations League campaign with a win. It is an exaggeration to call it revenge for their Euro 2016 defeat – arguably second only to the 1950 World Cup loss to the United States in their hall of shame – but a job was done, albeit in strange fashion.
Sterling, something of a scapegoat for the loss four years ago, symbolised his development into a talisman by casually rolling a penalty past Hannes Halldorsson. He had won it himself with a shot that Sverrir Ingason handled and which, rather harshly, brought a second booking.
And yet a depleted Iceland ought to have equalised. Joe Gomez tangled with Albert Gudmundsson, a second penalty was awarded and the former Aston Villa midfielder Bjarnason sent it into orbit.
It proved a remarkable return for England, 292 days after their previous game and in their belated first match of 2020.
Prolific in 2019, they found scoring more of a struggle. A weakened Iceland team, deprived of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gunnarsson and, after an injury in the warm-up, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, might have merited a point for their organisation.
They were on course to get one when Kyle Walker departed. The Manchester City right-back marked his international recall, after a year on the sidelines, with a red card, a needless lunge on Arnor Traustason bringing a deserved second booking.
It made him only the second defender to be sent off playing for England and, having surprisingly selected three right-backs in his squad, Gareth Southgate used them all: Kieran Trippier played on the left, where there was no specialist, and Trent Alexander-Arnold came on after Walker’s dismissal.
It made for a fraught ending. It might have been very different if Harry Kane’s sixth-minute strike had not been disallowed, but if the officials erred then, England had plenty of time to find the net again, and it proved difficult.
It was understandable they were not at their sharpest. Southgate sought to add incision by bringing on Danny Ings for a second cap, five years after his first, and Mason Greenwood was afforded a late debut when he came on for a tiring Kane but Sterling, the forward who started, finished the game as the match-winner.
He had provided the inviting cross when Kane slid in ahead of goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson to convert. It was a perfectly-timed run but the captain was wrongly ruled offside and, unlike in much of football, there was no recourse to VAR.
Walker threatened to score a maiden goal for his country – instead he recorded a different first – and Declan Rice spurned a glorious chance, winning the ball back, advancing into the box to meet Jadon Sancho’s cross but kicking his standing leg rather than the ball.
But Iceland weathered the early storm and navigated the next hour with few other alarms. They had limited intent, but a solid defensive structure, anchored by the 37-year-old former Plymouth and Rotherham centre-back Kari Arnason.
England dominated the ball and spent much of the game camped in the Iceland half; indeed, both Gomez and Eric Dier completed more passes than the home side did in the first half. And yet they were the two centre-backs – for the first time, Dier began a senior international in defence – and the game was ahead of them.
But with Trippier on the left, his crossing was less of a factor than usual. The Atletico Madrid man’s set-pieces were a feature of the World Cup and his brightest moment came from a free kick, which Jon Dadi Bodvarsson headed just past his own post.
For England, though, it was largely a pattern of possession without penetration. They lacked creativity in an inexperienced midfield. Southgate gave a debut to Phil Foden and a first start to James Ward-Prowse.
Foden showed an assurance in possession and some neat touches. It remains the hardest department of the team for Southgate, with the most options but the fewest automatic choices. But then Sterling underlined why he is among the first names on the teamsheet.