History shows that, given a modicum of luck, England will still go straight through to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
This week two England teams achieved two draws amid contrasting emotions. On Tuesday morning those who had not been watching TV all night awoke to the news that the cricketers had denied New Zealand a seemingly certain victory through dogged, studious defending worthy of the Duke of Wellington. On Tuesday night the nation went to bed having seen the footballers, who had appeared set for a comfortable victory, hold Montenegro to 1-1 while displaying the panic-stricken tendencies of Corporal Jones.
The England cricket team's resolve was a happy augury for the summer Tests against New Zealand and the Ashes series which lie ahead. For Roy Hodgson's side, however, the dark clouds of pessimism are beginning to loom. Now it is not so much a question of what England may achieve in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as whether they will be there at all.
The possibility of England becoming involved in a play-off in order to make the tournament proper was hardly mentioned before Tuesday's game in Podgorica. Now speculation is mounting rapidly on what sort of opposition Hodgson's players will encounter should they finish behind Montenegro in second place in their qualifying group.
France would appear to be the team England would want most to avoid, although Croatia might turn out to be Montenegro with knobs on. It should not be forgotten that Greece, having at times outplayed Sven-Goran Eriksson's side at Old Trafford, would have forced England into a play-off against Ukraine in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers but for David Beckham's free-kick, harshly awarded, which held the Greeks to 2–2.
Meanwhile, Hodgson is experiencing the familiar criticism that all England managers suffer when the team has had a bad night or, in this instance, half a bad night. The day after Graham Taylor's team had qualified for the 1992 European Championship he astonished reporters with the woeful prophecy that he would almost certainly be slated for getting his team selections and tactics wrong in Sweden the following summer. Taylor was spot on.
The grumbles that Hodgson did not react quickly enough to Montenegro's resurgence after half-time and delayed unnecessarily substitutions which might have eased the pressure on his beleaguered defence bear distant echoes of the barbs aimed at Alf Ramsey when England flopped in the World Cup qualifiers in 1973.
Ramsey was never strong on using substitutes because, for the bulk of his career in football, he had had no experience of them. On that frustrating, nerve-racked October night at Wembley when England, needing to beat Poland to qualify for the 1974 tournament in West Germany, were being held at 1-1 and appeared incapable of beating Jan Tomaszewski in the Polish goal, Ramsey's only response was the belated replacement of Martin Chivers with Kevin Hector.
Doubtless that evening will be recalled with relish when the Poles come to town this October, although the earlier encounter would not have been so crucial, England's 2-0 defeat in Chorzow that summer notwithstanding, had Wales not forced a 1-1 draw at Wembley at the beginning of 1973.
Thoughts of what Hodgson, with his limited options, can accomplish should England make it to Brazil need to be put on hold and this may be no bad thing. At least the squad are unlikely to be burdened by unrealistic expectations and it is worth pointing out that when England struggle to qualify they sometimes do better than when their progress has been relatively serene.
Ron Greenwood wanted to resign after defeats in Switzerland and Norway had left England on the brink of failing to make the 1982 World Cup and their manager bruised by the press. But the players persuaded him to stay on, other results went his way, and the team did passably well in Spain, returning home unbeaten if unfulfilled.
Statistically, England's position is comparable to the time Kevin Keegan's side found themselves in a play-off for Euro 2000 having won three, drawn four and lost one of their qualifiers. Then they faced Scotland and won 2-0 at Hampden before losing 1-0 at Wembley to go through on aggregate. This time their group record so far reads three won, three drawn and none lost. Not that they will be facing the Scots again.
Given a modicum of luck England may still go straight through, in which case manager and players will have more time to kit themselves out with thick skins. Just so long as Corporal Jones is left on the bench.