LONDON • When Raheem Sterling grew up within the shadow of Wembley, he would ride around on his bike marvelling at the gleaming stadium, dreaming of playing there.
He even has a tattoo of him as a young boy staring up in awe at the arch. Life now imitates artwork and Wembley now marvels at him.
The 24-year-old scored not one but three goals in the 5-0 demolition of the Czech Republic on Friday - the first England player to notch a hat-trick at the national stadium since Jermain Defoe against Bulgaria in 2010.
It was the perfect exhibition of Sterling's myriad talents and gave England the ideal start in qualifying for Euro 2020.
Perhaps most encouragingly of all, is evidence that he is finally transferring his Manchester City form onto the international stage.
England manager Gareth Southgate praised the forward's "devastating" performance and the manner in which he has turned around his international career, after going three years and 27 appearances without a goal.
Goals Raheem Sterling has scored in his last three games for England. He had not managed a single goal in his previous 27 appearances.
"Raheem was brilliant, electric all night," Southgate said.
"He's in a really confident moment, not only on the field but off the field he's so mature and comfortable in himself.
"So I'm delighted for him to get the reaction that he did from the crowd. We can't hide from the fact he's had difficult moments with England and he's turned that full circle.
"The goals in Spain (two goals in a Nations League win in October) were an important moment for him; you could see the release that had brought. He's hungry for those goals and I thought he was devastating tonight."
Sterling's efficiency on the pitch was so good that he had 96 per cent passing accuracy, and his three shots brought all three goals alongside a Harry Kane penalty - which he won - and a Tomas Kalas own goal.
But it was not simply his pace and persistence that opened up the Czechs time and again. It was the intelligence that defined his involvement, his awareness of opportunity and ruthlessness in exploiting chances, shredding the visitors' defence.
His latest performance was just another reminder why Southgate believes it is between Sterling or Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk to win the individual awards as the Premier League's outstanding player this season.
Not that Sterling was the only player in England's colours to excel, though.
The Three Lions finished the night with Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, making his debut as a second-half substitute, with both 18-year-olds menacing their opponents from the wings.
Declan Rice, who switched allegiance from Ireland only earlier this month, also earned his first international cap in the second half.
"To finish with two young wingers was really exciting," added Southgate.
"They don't feel inhibited around the camp, so they don't feel inhibited on the pitch and you could see that by the way they played.
"I thought Jadon made a really good contribution for the first goal. Callum had an opportunity to play with the freedom he's shown all week, and I thought he displayed that."
England, following an impressive semi-final run at last year's World Cup, are indeed looking promising with this young side.
When the Mexican wave started at Wembley it was not one of those occasions when it felt as if the crowd were trying to make their own entertainment.
They were well and truly entertained, and will be looking for more of the same kind of performance from Sterling and Co when England travel to Montenegro for their second qualifier tomorrow.
THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS