Rafael van der Vaart’s late equaliser denied Steve McClaren’s England a morale-boosting win over Holland in Amsterdam.
Pilloried in the wake of last month’s defeat by Croatia and under siege at his pre-match media briefing, McClaren seemed certain to be celebrating England’s first win in the Dutch capital since 1969 after Wayne Rooney had put the visitors in front before the interval.
But, just as it appeared England had seen off the last of a sporadic attacking threat from Marco van Basten’s men, they suffered a major defensive breakdown, allowing Celtic striker Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink to flick Arjen Robben’s long throw to the far post where Van der Vaart drilled home.
It was tough luck on McClaren, whose side played with far more conviction than they had done in Zagreb, showing no sign of being affected by the pressure being heaped on them to produce a performance even though they found out before kick-off results elsewhere mean they will enter the New Year outside the automatic qualifying spots for Euro 2008.
Although McClaren has steadfastly refused to go public with the reasons he insisted had been found for the shambolic performance against the Croats, there was clear evidence of the improvement England’s beleaguered coach had promised, and a number of individual reasons to cheer as well.
In opting to dispense with the orthodox right-sided wide player as he abandoned the disastrous 3-5-2 in favour of 4-3-3, McClaren showed plenty of faith in rookie full-back Micah Richards.
At 18 years and 144 days, the Manchester City man eclipsed Rio Ferdinand as the youngest defender to play for his country and became the seventh youngest England international of all time.
His task was to stop Arjen Robben. With one notable exception, when Robben skipped past him inside the penalty area and smashed a shot at goal Paul Robinson did well to turn away, Richards carried the job out to perfection.
The full-back’s physique belies his tender years and his raw pace, energy and natural confidence allowed him to bomb down the wing in a manner Gary Neville would have been proud of.
Steven Gerrard and Andrew Johnson, on only his second international start, also made a positive contributions but of the four changes to the side which subsided so badly in Zagreb, it was Joe Cole who really stood out.
Starting on the left and slowly drifting across to the right, Joe Cole was at the heart of all England’s best work and proved exactly what a big miss he was when a knee injury kept him out of all five games since McClaren took charge.
Although the touch Rooney supplied to turn home Joe Cole’s 36th-minute cross could hardly be described as convincing, it brought relief not just to McClaren but the Manchester United striker himself.
Since netting in the win over Argentina, Rooney had waited 12 months to score his 12th England goal. His drought should have come to an end eight minutes earlier but, on the ground where he was sent off on club duty in pre-season, Rooney spurned the type of chance he normally buries.
Again Joe Cole was the architect, lofting a cross into the Dutch box which Andre Ooijer, under pressure from Johnson, nodded straight to the England forward.
Totally unmarked on the penalty spot, Rooney had time to control and shoot. Instead, he nodded tamely at Henk Timmer.
Offered his chance due to the absence of Edwin van der Sar, Timmer had also come to the hosts’ rescue when Gerrard pounced on Ooijer’s underhit back-pass, only for the Feyenoord keeper to save with his legs.
Aside from Robben’s effort, Holland did not create much for all their pretty passing and Dirk Kuyt’s selfless running, Van der Vaart firing wide on a couple of occasions.
Van der Vaart was off target with two more half-chances after the break and Richards intervened to end more Robben scheming, but it was England who continued to look the most likely scorers for most of the second period.
Rooney went for placement rather than power and found neither when he sidefooted Cole’s lay-off straight at substitute keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, then Michael Carrick blasted narrowly wide when he tried his luck from 25 yards.
Victory seemed assured until the lapse that gifted Van der Vaart his chance.
Even then, England might have snatched it but Stekelenburg superbly denied Gerrard and Rooney could not pick out a team-mate after bursting into the area in stoppage time.