After watching their dishevelled 1-1 draw in Poland on Wednesday it was even harder to believe that there used to be a time when hardly anyone imagined that England would fail to qualify for a World Cup. Such things simply did not happen.
Roy Hodgson's team may well make it to Brazil 2014 but the seed of doubt sown by Ukraine when they drew 1-1 with England at Wembley last month has begun to put down more than a hint of a root with Wednesday's poverty-stricken performance in Warsaw. Such misgivings will persist until or unless England produce something better in Montenegro next March.
All right, the old maxim about wearing overalls to qualify then donning best bib and tucker for the tournament proper still holds good. This is just another way of saying that in the qualifiers performances matter less than results whereas in the finals success will not be achieved without high performance levels. England's problem on Wednesday was that they were wearing not working clothes so much as dressing gowns and slippers.
Something comes over England teams once they have crossed the Polish frontier. True, their record over there is not bad – three wins, four draws and one defeat – but the statistics hide some hairy moments and the overall quality of the football has seldom risen above the mediocre.
Perhaps the ghosts of 1973 have still to be exorcised. In the buildup to this week's match, England's 2-0 defeat in Chorzow, the result that marked the beginning of the end of Sir Alf Ramsey's time as England manager, was widely remembered yet before that game there was little sense of impending doom.
In fact the mood was decidedly upbeat. The previous day a few journalists had a lunchtime drink with Alan Ball at a local bar and were treated to a glowing appreciation of Bobby Moore, the England captain and Ball's good mate. "He's amazing," said Ball. "Season after season he plays for West Ham, a family club just happy to be in the First Division, yet he always manages to raise his game for England."
Fate, once tempted, rarely fails to oblige. The following evening Moore showed signs that his international career was living on borrowed time. A misunderstanding with his goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, at a free-kick led to Poland taking an early lead and soon after half-time Moore gave the ball away to Wlodzimierz Lubanski, who scored their second.
Typically Moore showed no emotion either then or after the match. Ramsey subsequently admitted: "If he had wept then we'd have all wept with him." He dropped Moore when England met Poland at Wembley later that year, needing to win to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.
The team's failure to achieve anything more than a 1-1 draw, which was due in no small part to the unorthodox goalkeeping heroics of Jan Tomaszewski, has become part of football folklore. Moore won only one more cap and the Football Association sacked Ramsey the following spring.
England did not play in another World Cup proper until Spain in 1982. Small wonder, then, that subsequent trips to Poland have often been accompanied by a sense of unease. At least the Poles no longer play their more crucial internationals at Chorzow's Stadion Slaski, a vast barren bowl set amid the pitheads of Silesia and once capable of holding 100,000 of Europe's most intimidating fans.
The hostile atmosphere got to Graham Taylor's England team when they met Poland there in a qualifier for the 1994 World Cup in America. The crowd was only 50,000 but the tone was set by locals fighting a pitched battle with the police.
England made nervous errors from the start and Dariusz Adamczuk lobbed Chris Woods to give Poland a half-time lead. Taylor described it as "a disgraceful goal" and "everything I preach against". Woods nearly gave away another with a fluffed clearance but eventually Ian Wright came off the bench to earn England a point.
After the game Taylor said some of his players had been "headless chickens". Defeats away to Norway and Holland, losing a goal to San Marino in eight seconds and "Do I not like that" finished his time as England manager.
Again, Poland, although they lost the return game 3-0 at Wembley, had been an important catalyst in the decline of English optimism. Now Hodgson has five months to cure another Polish hangover.