Ryan Bertrand, Danny Welbeck and Harry Kane – the last two instinctive strikers’ finishes from international class deliveries – gave England their biggest competitive win for nearly two years.
What a shame so many of their supporters missed it! Disillusioned by the preceding 85 minutes of one-paced, uninventive football, dozens had politely asked stewards for the return of the giant flags that hung so proudly before kick-off of yet another game which raises more questions than answers.
They had not come to a holiday isle to witness workmanlike drudgery and the work Southgate’s players still have to do should not be lost beneath the final gloss.
Taunts of derision rang audibly around the open bowl of the Ta’Qali Stadium and increasingly it was becoming hard to argue with them.
Technically, this game marked the start of the post-Wayne Rooney era and in his absence, England started brightly enough with five half-decent chances in the opening quarter-hour.
Kane’s was the best of them, Dele Alli’s cross all but inviting him to open his account for the season and while the calendar had moved onto September, his luck was still entrenched in August.
Having failed for another year to mark the eighth month with a goal, his misery continued just a little bit longer with a header straight against the goalkeeper.
Raheem Sterling had already dithered too long in the first minute to convert an opening, Alli could not keep on top of the ball and a couple more half-chances both came to nothing.
England finally managed to get the ball into the back of the Malta net after 21 minutes, but goalkeeper Andrew Hogg was judged to have been fouled as Phil Jones powered in his header.
A measure of what England were up against is that at the right-centre of the Malta defence was Sam Magri, who plies his club trade in the National League with Ebbsfleet.
A former England Under-16 captain who qualifies for Malta through his grandfather and typified the resilient but limited no-nonsense red-brick wall England were struggling to find a way past.
They simply did not seem to have the tools. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may prefer to play in the middle but he buzzed away on the right happily enough but failed to deliver a final
ball to hurt the Malta defence.
On the other side Sterling struggled to control the ball and Bertrand on the overlap regularly picked out Malta heads with his crosses.
In between them Jake Livermore, replacement for the suspended Eric Dier, showed his lack of class at this level and although Jordan Henderson tried to chivvy everybody along as
captain, the quality of his passing was unhelpful to say the least.
Malta have averaged nearly three goals a game against them this campaign and are ranked 190 in the world – no wonder there were loud boos when the representatives of an island smaller than the Isle of Wight walked in on level pegging with their Premier League-waged opponents.
Rashford replaced Sterling at the break but while fireworks began to sprinkle the dark night sky in the distance behind the Malta goal, the first sign of any on the pitch was a rocket from Malta captain Andre Schembri which thankfully whizzed just wide of Joe Hart’s post.
When the England goal did finally come it was more of a fizz than a bang. Malta for once struggled to clear, Alli wriggled to make space for a pass and teed up Kane finally to open his 2017-18 account with a cool finish.
Kane did sting the hands of Hogg with a 20-yard zinger on the hourmark but that did not prevent the start of an exodus of England fans, taking their giant St George crosses with them. Even the brass band sounded mournful.
At least it looked like a positive move from Southgate when Jamie Vardy replaced Alli with 21 minutes to go – perhaps the party would finally get started. His first touch, a toe poke, went inches wide , while Rashford produced another shot from distance that Hogg beat away comfortably enough.
Even the further addition of Welbeck failed to inspire much of a goal-threat until another hopeful swinger, this time from Bertrand, snuck into the corner to muted applause with four minutes to go.
It was the cue to more collapse but those final five minutes were more about winning back lost friends than securing the points.
Rashford produced another shot from distance that Hogg beat away.