When it comes to England and acts of pre-tournament brinkmanship it is easy to get lost in the fug of reminiscence. We have been here before. So many times in fact that over the past 40 years of fevered England qualification mishmash the all-or-nothing endgame has been more the norm than the exception, a B movie drama – remember the fist-pumping joy of Old Trafford 2001: England have won the (right to go to the) World Cup! – that has at times overshadowed the main event when it comes to moments of genuine footballing triumph.
It is a surprisingly common theme. Of England's last 19 tournament qualification campaigns 10 have ended in some kind of debilitating last-ditch stagger. Ominously with Tuesday night in mind, not one of these final pushes has been resolved by a straightforward, agony-free victory. Three have been lost, while eight times England have progressed intact but only after some horribly draining encounter, from the fraught 1-0 defeat of Hungary in 1981 to the twin-headed play-off entanglement with Scotland in 1999.
In fact so familiar are these occasions that the match itself already has the feel of a self-contained one-off drama. Somebody at some point will frantically gee up the crowd just before a vital corner kick. There will be a bafflingly missed Polish sitter. Roy Hodgson will be required somewhere in the piece to stalk the touchline, rain-sodden hair – it always rains – plastered to his forehead, like an owlishly courteous modern-day Lear. And already at least one of England's Brave Qualification Heroes is wearing a headband. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course, the answer to that is plenty. Poland have had a meandering campaign but they remain a team with excellent individuals, even if Robert Lewandowski, currently the most valuable player on either side, has an international goalscoring record marginally inferior to that of Jermain Defoe. With this in mind it is perhaps more interesting right now to contemplate what might happen if England don't make it on Tuesday night, or after that through a play-off system that looks fraught with awkwardness (this is, after all, England: it's all awkward).
England probably will qualify one way or another. But should they fail there is another set of quietly familiar conventions just waiting to kick in. For players and managers there is more than simply a single summer tournament at stake. More often than not defeat in the make-or-breaker has acted as a protracted Viking funeral for the international careers of many present.
It is worth studying the minority reports from England's previous qualification failures of 1972-2007. In each case, Bobby Robson aside, the manager has lost his job. Perhaps Hodgson will see a favourable omen in this: Robson had been in the job less than two years, although Steve McClaren had been in charge for a similar period when he departed in 2007. And managers aside McClaren's losing team against Croatia at Wembley six years ago reads like a roster of the damned. Five players – Scott Carson, Sol Campbell, Micah Richards, Wayne Bridge and Joe Cole – either never played again or failed to make it into double figures in future caps, while for Peter Crouch and Shaun Wright-Phillips this would be a last significant hurrah.
Such is the pattern. Defeats in these games has always tended to have a little touch of death about it. Graham Taylor lost his job after failing to qualify for USA 94, but the damage didn't stop there. Of the team he put out in the clinching defeat to Holland in Rotterdam five players (Tony Dorigo, Paul Parker, Lee Sharpe, Carlton Palmer and Andy Sinton) played a maximum of one more match for England. Go back 10 years and Phil Neal and Russell Osman were dropped for good after the defeat by Denmark at Wembley, while seven members of the team didn't get past another six caps. In 1976 the key defeat to Italy left Roy McFarland (no further caps), Stan Bowles (one), Dave Clement (one) and Kevin Beattie (not dropped but a fine player lost to injury) in the out-tray. Three years earlier the 1-1 draw with Poland at Wembley had seen off Martin Chivers, Norman Hunter, Kevin Hector, Allan Clarke and good old Martin Peters, none of whom got past four more caps.
This is, of course, unsurprising. International sport is a cyclical affair and failure will naturally bring change. Football, though, is business of intermittently suspended reality. We never quite like to see the end coming, not without a squint anyway, even when it is already clear that Ashley Cole, say, has perhaps no more than five more caps left in him. Should Tuesday and then the play-offs end in one of England's cyclical defeats there are plenty who might expect to shuffle off the main stage.
Hodgson himself may or may not stay on. History suggests not. While of the initial 23-man squad Cole has nothing to prove and legs to preserve, Michael Carrick has, let's face it, never quite got started with England. Steven Gerrard will surely devote himself to Liverpool in his dotage. Frank Lampard is already off. James Milner – an outside shot this – may smell slightly too much of Hodgson. Defoe is surely almost done, while Rickie Lambert was perhaps just a happy interlude. Others may join them should England find themselves beached on the rocks of another new era. This is a youngish squad and one that is hardly besieged by competing talent on the outside. But either way there will be blood.
Hodgson has described a World Cup without England as unthinkable. It is of course eminently thinkable, not to mention achievable given the fine-point tension of these last-ditch occasions over the last 40 years. The margins have always been fine, and the sense of wider endings always present. It is perhaps no more than a yeasty sub-plot, but the fact remains that on Tuesday night quite a few of those involved will be playing for more than simply next summer's World Cup.