After a thrilling night at Wembley, Roy Hodgson is vindicated even if it must have felt like the longest 90 minutes of his life
Never in any doubt. Honest. England will go to Brazil next summer after a brilliantly rowdy, occasionally ragged, ultimately rather painful night of high-stakes international football. An unceasingly shrill Wembley Stadium had its dial turned up to 11 throughout here as England and Poland produced a match of tumbles, gallops, cavalry-charge breaks and – in the first half at least – relentlessly shanked shots at goal.
At times there was almost a comedy-opera feel to proceedings as a stadium alive on all sides with unusually restless support was treated to an exhibition of head-clutching, umbrella-gnawing hit-and-miss. "I died a thousand deaths every time they passed the halfway line," Roy Hodgson admitted afterwards. You said it, Roy.
England's second goal at the end of this 2-0 victory came from their 22nd shot, a scrambling burst and finish from Steven Gerrard. And at times it even felt a little over-scripted as intermingled Polish and English fans in a full-house crowd took turns to leap out of their seats at some fresh outrage of flailing goal-bound limbs. International football is supposed to be withering away. Not here. This was instead a night of vibrant and at times hilariously fraught sporting theatre.
There had been a fear before kick-off that 18,000 or so Poles would out-sing and out-atmosphere the home support, albeit anything that might drown out the England band, whose parpings and whumpings tend to produce the feeling of being very slowly lulled into semi-consciousness by a dementedly patriotic stage hypnotist, is to be welcomed.
In the event Wembley was instead unusually alive, the frantic triumphalism of late Friday night still crackling around this steeply banked steel and glass enormo-drome on a crisp, clear London night. Even the national anthems were a riot, Poland's bringing forth a barrage of red flares, England's a mass outbreak of whistling, as the match kicked off beneath a pall of brilliantly sinister white smoke. You could almost hear Wembley's mob-handed events managers making a mental note. Hmmm. White smoke. Atmospheric. Authentic.
Once again it took a little bit of Andros-power to get England going, the Spurs man's jink and low shot in the 10th minute the first twitching muscle-memory of Friday night. Townsend later hit the bar with a wonderful, dipping left-footed shot and the Leytonstone Locomotive was again England's sparkiest attacker in that knockabout first half. It was during this period that Hodgson looked not just pained but at times bewildered as Poland broke with menace, Adrian Mierzejewski scampering through the centre of the pitch like an own-brand Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski twice spurning decent chances, as he had here in the first half of May's Champions League final.
In the end it was England's King of The Qualifier who found a moment of incision. Leighton Baines took up an excellent advanced left-wing position as Poland bunched in the middle and his cross was flicked in expertly by a forehead briefly denuded of its padded support. Rooney was excellent again here, the opening goal on a night like this providing a significant notch on his career CV. He now has nine goals in the last 12 months for England. It has been a quietly fruitful buddying up with Hodgson, with Rooney given freedom to roam in his favoured trequartista-bruiser role.
For England half-time arrived in a flurry of grimacing relief as the massed ranks of Poles – there were many more than 18,000 here – finally fell silent. Hodgson had spent pretty much the entire first half engaged in an unceasing full-body grimace while Ray Lewington stalked the technical area shouting and pointing at invisible England players – it was, to be fair, that sort of occasion – before rising to lead his players off with almost a kicking-up of the heels.
This is, whatever England's fate in Brazil, a wonderful personal achievement for their appealingly itinerant manager. Barring any Capello-style flouncings-off, Hodgson will become just the sixth Englishman to take England to a World Cup and the first to do so in 16 years.
Walter Winterbottom was the first of them, and the only other man to take England to a World Cup in Brazil. On that trip England's coach would occasionally cook his players dinner and even do the dishes afterwards. Hodgson, with a 15-man support team behind him, is probably safe on that score, although he does have a suitably dad-ish rapport with his squad. Twice in the space of five days a disparate band of England players have performed pretty much to the peak of their capacities when it mattered most. Hodgson's caution may or may not have led England to this dramatic final pass. But this is not a feat of management to be underestimated.
Here Hodgson showed his versatility by switching from all-out attack to half-out attack, introducing Michael Carrick in place of Frank Lampard and choosing the more disciplined Chris Smalling ahead of Phil Jones at right-back. Not that either actually made much difference as England simply tore into their opponents, and were torn in return throughout as Poland produced a relentlessly energetic performance in what was for these home-from-home visitors a competitive dead rubber.
In the end it was once again advantage Roy, not least for the undimmed sense of attack, with his captain, his key striker and his hunch-pick right-winger England's most potent players. Gerrard it was who had the last word, producing a brilliantly telescopic late burst and finish as Wembley erupted, finally, into Brazil-bound relief.