Relieved England boss Roy Hodgson revelled in the depth of his squad after his game-changing substitutions conjured a pivotal last-gasp victory over Wales in Lens.
Hodgson gambled with England looking increasingly bereft of inspiration and losing 1-0 at half-time, courtesy of Gareth Bale’s free-kick and a Joe Hart howler, and unleashed strikers Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy.
Sturridge sparked scenes of ecstasy on the England bench with a winning strike deep into injury time, following Vardy’s earlier leveller, as the Three Lions won their first ever match at a major tournament after trailing at the break.
Victory left England’s destiny in their own hands. Maximum points in their final Group B match against Slovakia on Monday would seal top spot, while a draw would see the Three Lions progress, although the door would be opened for Wales to sneak first place.
“We made the decision (on the substitutes) early. It was the right decision,” said Hodgson.
“We were anxious to inject a little bit more tempo into our game and anxious to persuade players to take a few more risks and show confidence in themselves in and around the penalty area. They responded well.
“Substitutions are going to play a major part in this tournament. The games come thick and fast and there are a lot of players who feel hard done by when not selected, and you as a coach can find it hard.”
In a largely pedestrian first half for the Three Lions, England wasted a golden opportunity on seven minutes as Harry Kane released Adam Lallana, only for his centre to be skied horribly by the onrushing Raheem Sterling.
England were only able to muster half-chances at best despite enjoying the vast majority of possession and moments before the break were staring down the barrel of a first defeat to Wales since Mark Hughes’s clincher in 1984.
Free agent Hal Robson-Kanu, formerly of Reading, engineered a foul from England captain Wayne Rooney, and Bale’s 35-yard set-piece was limply fumbled into the corner of his net by Hart.
Hodgson rolled the dice at the break and withdrew Sterling, who appeared desperately shorn of confidence, and an ineffectual Kane.
It took Vardy just 11 minutes to make his presence felt, bundling home while in an offside position, although Sturridge’s dinked cross was waywardly headed towards his own goal by Wales skipper Ashley Williams. Vardy has now scored four goals from five on-target shots in his England career.
England looked to be rapidly running out of ideas until the 91st minute when Sturridge latched on to successive flicks from Vardy and Dele Alli and fired a quickly taken shot, with very little back-lift, through Wayne Hennessey at his near post. Sturridge became only the 10th England player to score at a World Cup and European Championship.
Sturridge became only the 10th England player to score at a World Cup and European Championship.