Roy Hodgson has been rewarded for some bold selections but it was the old guard who marched England towards Brazil
So England's timing was impeccable after all, their most impressive performances in qualifying Group H reserved for their final two fixtures as Ukraine were staved off and a place in Brazil secured. What was otherwise a rather underwhelming qualification campaign has at least ended with enough of a bang to get the juices flowing before the World Cup finals, but also to ensure expectations will be realistic when the team land in Rio next summer. The English will not travel as contenders but they will, fitness permitted, be spearheaded by a prolific Wayne Rooney, have a captain in Steven Gerrard who is thriving on responsibility, and boast a sprinkling of young players who will relish a first taste of a tournament. Roy Hodgson became the sixth Englishman here to qualify for a World Cup, having thrown off the shackles when necessity demanded it, and will be stronger for the experience. The South American jamboree is only 251 days away.
Hodgson's new-found boldness, and the Poles' freedom with qualification no longer a possibility, made this a magnificent helter-skelter game. The tension crackled while the contest remained goalless, the England manager aghast when Adrian Mierzejewski broke downfield from a home corner, Jakub Blaszczykowski dummied and Robert Lewandowski shot wide at the far post. "Fuck me," mouthed Hodgson at the miss, an expletive echoed around the arena. Gary Cahill's block just as Mateusz Klich's first touch threatened an equaliser prompted a similar reaction. The knowledge that Ukraine were home and dry in San Marino hardly helped so, regardless that this was a match against a team ranked 65 in the world, England should be encouraged that they coped with the pressure. After all, the real frustration here was endured by those supporting Poland, a talented team surely capable of better than fourth in Group H.
The manager will reflect with some satisfaction not just on successive wins in the matches that mattered, but on the fact that his bolder selection decisions seemed to come off. Andros Townsend was as scintillating here as he had been against Montenegro on his debut. His fearless running has been a revelation, that left-footed shot crunched against the bar from distance in the first half prompting a flurry of chances before the break that eventually yielded the goal. Michael Carrick, recalled for Frank Lampard, was as calm in a frantic midfield as Hodgson could have hoped, his 31st cap spent anchoring the centre with the odd timely tackle and rarely any sloppy passes. This was one of his more influential appearances until Lampard replaced him in the last quarter, while Hodgson's faith in retaining Joe Hart was justified by the goalkeeper's fine save from Robert Lewandowski as the Poles came again after the interval.
Two sons of Liverpool inspired this victory. Rooney has been a consistent scorer throughout the qualifying campaign: his headed first-half goal was a seventh in six appearances. It was nodded in with his head protection having been discarded, that ugly scar across his temple threatening to open up, with his padded cap only flung back to him once the celebrations had died down. He will see Brazil as a chance to make it third time lucky, after appearances in 2006 and 2010 having proved rather forgettable. Gerrard, meanwhile, capped a typically all-action display with a splendid second goal and will, as he had suggested in the build-up, now be the "proudest man in the country" at having led England to Brazil. This will be his last opportunity on such a stage. The veteran will be impatient to get started.
Like it or loathe it, there was a certain sense to the Football Association's decision to increase the away section ticket allocation at Wembley stadium from the original 8,000 to 18,000. The extra 10,000 tickets would surely still have been bought up by Polish expats and would merely have further blurred the segregation in operation within the ground. Even with that concession, there were banks of visiting support all around the arena, their numbers nearer the 25,000 that had been predicted by the Polish football association. Their cover was blown when Waldemar Sobota found the side-netting early on, or when he converted from an offside position as half-time approached, with each prompting whoops of premature celebration from all parts of the stadium. But the din, and even the pre-match flares that had the health and safety officers twitching, merely added to the sense of occasion. Even the whistles that greeted spells of England possession were ear-splitting. That, and the heightened tension, helped whip the whole evening up into a glorious frenzy.