Their final home match of the year will be remembered for the pre-match tributes to Sir Bobby Charlton rather than the football that followed as Gareth Southgate's side limped to a 2-0 win against Malta.
Friday's European Championship qualifier at Wembley saw the senior men's team play their first match since the incredible 1966 World Cup winner died at the age of 86 last month.
A fan mosaic, video montage and minute's applause formed part of a fitting farewell to Charlton before the current crop made hard work of a simple assignment against the side ranked 171st in the world.
Southgate is dealing with a number of absentees right now and his side are already assured of qualification for Euro 2024, but this was hardly the entertaining display he hoped to put on for the 81,388 in attendance.
It could have been worse given Teddy Teuma went close to a famous Maltese goal 28 seconds into a Group C encounter, but the hosts went ahead as Enrico Pepe turned Phil Foden's cross into his own net.
Harry Kane was furious to see the referee book him for diving rather than pointing to the penalty spot as a tepid clash continued, with the Euro 2020 runners-up failing to muster a first-half shot on target for the first time in six years.
Things did not improve much after half-time but a rare moment of attacking coherency and quick-thinking saw Kane strike home 15 minutes from time.
Substitute Declan Rice saw a third ruled out for a contentious offside call on a night that all but assured England's place among the top seeds in December's Euro 2024 draw.
Southgate named a surprisingly-strong side against the Mediterranean minnows on Friday, showing just five changes from last month's win against Italy.
Conor Gallagher was among those brought in and breathing a sigh of relief after he was dispossessed and Teuma flashed just wide from the edge of the box inside the opening minute.
It was a close shave and England quickly went ahead thanks to a moment of Maltese misfortune, with Foden's attempted cutback ricocheting off Pepe and beating goalkeeper Henry Bonello.
Southgate's side would not give up that eighth-minute lead, nor build on it during a lifeless first-half display.
Malta were far more impressive than they had been in June's reverse fixture and Paul Mbong fired over after Harry Maguire saw a lax pass cut out.
England musted just two attempts across a wretched first half that saw fans entertain themselves with Mexican waves and paper planes.
They should, though, have seen a penalty after Kane went down as he rounded goalkeeper Bonello.
The skipper turned around expecting a spot-kick, only for referee Luis Godinho to show him a yellow card for simulation. The on-field decision was allowed to stand by the VAR.
Kyle Walker and Bukayo Saka replaced Gallagher and Fikayo Tomori at the break.
Maguire's deflected, looping header from a corner was easily gathered and Marcus Rashford continued to be frustrated by Malta's backline as the qualifier limped on.
Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold collided and the former was replaced by debutant Cole Palmer, while Rice came on for Jordan Henderson. The veteran again received boos from some fans.
Alexander-Arnold, deployed in midfield, saw a shot saved by Bonello and whipped another attempt over as England pushed for a second, which came through the familiar boot of Kane after 75 minutes.
Malta were dogged in their defending but quick interplay involving Walker, Foden and Saka ended with Kane firing home from close range.
A minute later England appeared to have added gloss to the scoreline.
Rice collected the ball, burst forward and whipped a fizzing 20-yard strike past Bonello, only for the goal to be ruled out upon VAR review for Kane being offside.
Yannick Yankam thrashed the ball just wide and Alexander-Arnold nearly caught out Malta's goalkeeper as the clock wound down.
Many fans made an early exit and groans met the announcement that there would be six minutes of added time as the night ended in a 2-0 England win, just like Southgate's first match against the same opposition in October 2016.
Additional reporting from PA