Advantage Roy. England are halfway to next year's World Cup after a performance of unrelenting attacking – yes, attacking – endeavour against Montenegro in the opening leg of their two-part qualification end-game. This was still a slightly puzzling night, a convincing 4-1 home qualification victory, the significance of which will be defined entirely by what happens on Tuesday night against Poland.
There was even a slight sense of frustration in England's attacking vim here. When Wayne Rooney scored the opening goal at Wembley England were, with just over two hours of their qualification campaign remaining, at last on their way to beating one of the better teams in Group H (world ranking: 27; population: about the same as Stuttgart).
If it was heartening to see England play with such abandon in attack, it was hard to avoid the feeling it might have been helpful to test the waters on that a little earlier in the piece. Hodgson has been criticised by some for his reluctance to gamble, as he might have by seeking to win rather than not lose in Kiev. And yet kicking for home with two games left is an act of brinkmanship in its own right. England now have a play-off place in the bag but Tuesday could be a horribly fraught occasion.
For all that, this was a night of personal triumph for Hodgson, who gambled as England managers rarely gamble, selecting a team containing three strikers and a debutant right-winger. Before kick-off there had been a rare crackle of excitement around England's sombrely re-upholstered ancestral home, stoked on this occasion by what was an unusually – even startlingly – progressive Hodgson team selection. This was in effect Roy Re-loaded, tie loosened, boater tossed to the winds and sending out a team equipped to go looking for the victory when it mattered most.
Hodgson deserves credit, too, for his quiet mastery of the tactical bluff in the build-up to this match, during which he hymned the virtues of midfield resilience, raised a perfumed handkerchief to his nose at the folly of all-out – or even half-out – attack and generally conjured a vision of a Milner-fied England shuttle-running their way towards Rio. It was to prove a masterful piece of misdirection as Hodgson chose the most important match of his England career to emerge from his telephone box transformed into something altogether more beefed-up, selecting here the most attacking line-up of his 20-month England tenure.
Gifted Leighton Baines' additional forward endeavour by Ashley Cole's injury, he ran with it, picking the Premier League's form English right-winger in place of his favourite pair of sensible shoes, and sending out the most likely goalscorers in all six forward positions (in fact of the 10 starting outfield players only Kyle Walker has yet to score an international goal).
Townsend proved an inspired hunch, and Hodgson deserves genuine credit not just for picking him, but for sending the Leytonstone Express out with the freedom to play in the manner that forced his selection, given his head to run, dribble and shoot like a man apparently convinced every jink down the wing might be his last. It was down that re-engineered right flank that England had their best moments. Townsend's first meaningful involvement was to take the ball beautifully in his stride, carry it forwards at speed and find Daniel Sturridge with a classy reverse nudge; his most important contribution was the sprint and cross that led to England's opening goal; his most spectacular was that first England goal, a beautifully-struck drive that found the corner.
Spurs' itinerant right winger is perhaps less of an arriviste than some have suggested. He has been rattling about the top two tiers for some time now and is less evidence of dwindling resources, more something of a good news story, a player of talent who has simply refused to go away, taking his football where he could find it (with the exception of Leeds United – they … didn't get on) and emerging a mobile and confident right-winger and a high-pressure physical specimen in the modern fashion, Aaron Lennon with muscles and a shoot-on-sight compulsion.
As he showed here Townsend is also something of a Scalextric-footballer, a man not just born to run, but born to run in pretty much the same direction every time, and with thrilling effect as at times he had Milan Jovanovic corkscrewing around in some distress. To their credit Roy's England 2.0 were willing runners throughout, even if for almost an hour they were more tent mallet than scalpel, as they battered away without ever quite looking like drawing any blood. The first half ended with Wembley's early fizz replaced by twitchiness. Or possibly it had simply been beaten out of it by the ever-wretched band, whose plodding repertoire often acts as a soporific on these occasions, its relentless parps producing the cumulative effect of being slapped repeatedly around the head by a wet sock with a kazoo inside it.
If at times in the first half England did look like a team trying on its party dress for the first time in quite a while, there was plenty of promise in the drive of Townsend, and an increasingly effective understanding between Sturridge and Rooney, in whom New Attacking Roy is blessed with a high-grade striking partnership. Perhaps it might even be enough to convince England's manager to retain the sense of adventure shown by his Wembley fliers. There has been a relentless dampening of expectations around this England team, not least from within, but here they showed they can play. More please, Roy. Poland will be forewarned, but this is not the moment to retreat.