IF Stuart Pearce’s reign as England manager comes to an abrupt end before Euro 2012, he will at least have the consolation of returning to his regular role with the Young Lions in rude health.
In front of an enthusiastic Riverside crowd Pearce’s former charges made light work of a disappointing Belgium side to continue their smooth progress towards the Euro 2013 finals in Israel - avenging defeat in Mons back in November in the process.
As poor as the visitors were, there were discernible moments of class from a clutch of players who may yet threaten the senior squad – whoever the Football Association finally decide to offer the top job too.
Powerful winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, unfortunate to miss out on Pearce’s inaugural squad, gave Laurens De Bock a torrid time down the right flank while two-goal man Henri Lansbury has clearly benefited from regular starts during his loan spell at West Ham.
It was Crystal Palace winger Wilfred Zaha, though, who really caught the eye. His fleet feet ensured Belgium were never off the back foot and if Newcastle United do decide to follow up their interest in the summer they are unlikely to be disappointed by such an exciting talent.
A straightforward night began with a long-range Lansbury shot that looped over the unfortunate Koen Casteels on nine minutes to hand England the advantage.
The West Ham man was denied by a smart Casteels save on 17 minutes before England notched a deserved second on 36 minutes - Steven Caulker nodding home a Craig Dawson flick on.
Belgium wasted two fine chances before the break when Ziguy Badibanga hooked a shot wide before Christian Benteke somehow headed wide from point blank range.
England punished them within seconds of the re-start, the effervescent Zaha cutting inside to tee up Lansbury for an emphatic close range finish. Oxlade-Chamberlain won and converted a penalty in injury time to complete the rout.
Interim Lions boss Brian Eastick declared the night a qualified success: “We feel we should qualify (for the play-offs) now.
“The big thing we need to learn is that if having got ourselves into a great position, two-nil up, we need to control the game better.
“We need to be more tactically astute because when you play top quality teams, the likes of a Germany or a Spain, we could exploit that. The game went a bit too end-to-end for my liking.”
It was a night which proved the continuing appetite for the England side around the country, with Middlesbrough doing a commendable job in selling more than 22,000 tickets for the Euro 2013 qualifier.
Eastick revealed afterwards that the venue is in line to play host to a Olympic warm up game, with a Team GB appearance a possibility. “The crowd was fantastic. It really is important for the players – the environment that they played in was a superb environment,” he said.
“It gives the players a big lift. I believe – I don’t think its been confirmed yet – but I think there could be a double header here. I think it’s a distinct possibility.”
The uptake of tickets was even more impressive given that North East interest was limited to former Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson and bench warmer Jason Steele.
Connor Wickham continues to endure growing pains at the Stadium of Light but it was still some surprise to see him left out of the match day squad entirely, a decision that Eastick explained afterwards. “I don’t think Connor has played much football recently - he’s got to get himself going again,” he said.
“I think that he needs to be working hard in the environment he’s in at Sunderland in terms of getting a bit of match fitness.
I just felt he wasn’t quite up to the mark in terms of his general fitness, that’s why I started young (Marvin) Sordell.
“Without a doubt he’s got a big future for us, though. I just felt he might be a yard short.”
ENGLAND U21: Butland, Kelly, Caulker, Dawson, Rose, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Henderson, McEachran, Zaha (Shelvey 67), Lansbury (Gardner 73), Sordell (Keane 82). Subs (not used): Steele, Smith, Lowe, Delfouneso. Booked: Dawson. Goals: Lansbury 9, Caulker 36, Lansbury 53, Oxlade-Chamberlain 90 pen.
BELGIUM U21: Casteels, Ngawa, Boyata, Wuytens, De Bock, Bruno (Musonda 62), Van Acker, Meunier (Naessens 59), De Pauw, Badibanga (Francois 83), Benteke. Subs (not used): Kaminski, Lukaku, Daeseleire, D’Haene.
Referee: Liran Liany (Israel) Att: 22, 647