Anyone wondering whether England's players were treading on eggshells around Joe Hart as they gathered at St George's Park should probably realise this is not the way footballers tend to work. "Joe wouldn't want it like that," Phil Jagielka explained, telling the story of playing table-tennis with England's goalkeeper at the team hotel and finding himself 10-9 down in a game of first-to-11.

Jagielka, sensing defeat, basically did what any decent sportsman would do before facing the serve for match-point. "Bayern Munich?" he asked.

These get-togethers are always filled with laddish humour. Jack Wilshere, after all the fuss about being caught having a crafty cigarette, told the story later on about losing his rag during a 10-versus-10 practice match and the coaching staff putting him in his place. "Calm down and go for a fag" was the message.

On the next pitch, there was a form of uproar when Ravel Morrison, in his first session with the England Under-21s, set up the winning goal with the last kick of a practice match. Morrison, quickly integrating, had gone against his team and played the killer pass for the wrong side. Watching on the sidelines, the FA's development directors, Trevor Brooking and Dan Ashworth, were lapping it up.

The mood was light, full of levity and humour, as it always tends to be at this stage of international week. It is closer to the match, as the pressures start to take hold, that everything becomes a little more serious. Roy Hodgson will not be looking forward to press conference, when he will be asked for his response to Harry Redknapp's criticisms of the "clueless" FA and, in particular, the observation that he "would not trust them to show him a good manager if their lives depended on it".

Yet what will really sharpen Hodgson's mind will be the reaction should anything go wrong against Montenegro and Poland, and the potential ramifications if England do not win the two games. It is the same for Hart. Manchester City's goalkeeper, according to Jagielka, was "his usual bubbly self". But no one is immune to nerves and Hart will be under scrutiny, more than ever before, at Wembley on Friday.

The stakes are incredibly high when anything but maximum points threatens to send England into the play-off draw, now confirmed for 21 October. A two-leg tie against France is possible should Ukraine beat Poland and close out Group H with the formality of a win against San Marino. But it could be even worse. A defeat in either of England's games might see Hodgson's team drop out altogether, quickly followed by another of those long, gruelling inquests into the state of England's national team, and the worst possible circumstances for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and maybe one or two others to announce their retirements from international football.

Hodgson, of course, would rather think more positively and will probably be advised not to get embroiled in a public row with Redknapp. If there is a time for Hodgson to bite back it should be after the Poland game on Tuesday, as long as everything has gone to plan. Otherwise, his priorities should be fixed on getting the balance of his team right now Daniel Sturridge is available to create the attacking partnership with Wayne Rooney that has previously been restricted to 33 minutes of a friendly against the Republic of Ireland in May.

Hodgson used Wilshere, Gerrard and Lampard in midfield for the 0-0 draw against Ukraine but one will have to drop out if Rooney and Sturridge start in attack, with Danny Welbeck and James Milner in the wide positions. Hodgson places such emphasis on the Gerrard-Wilshere axis it may be that Lampard is theunfortunate one on the night he collects his golden cap for 100 appearances.

The encouraging part for Hodgson is that all 23 players took part in training.

Montenegro have more serious issues in terms of injured players. One is Mirko Vucinic, the Juventus forward. The goalkeeper, Mladen Bozovic, is another, as is Marko Basa, a key member of their defence. Stevan Jovetic is in their squad but he, too, has suffered from injuries this season, starting only one Premier League game for Manchester City.

Hodgson has spent so much of this qualifying programme trying to compensate for withdrawals it seemed like a rarity to see a training session that involved every member of his squad. The absence of Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson means England's defence loses a touch of experience but Kyle Walker is a pretty capable deputy at right-back and there should be no concerns about Leighton Baines filling in on the opposite side.

Baines has been playing with so much distinction for Everton a lot of people already believe he should be filling England's left-back position on a permanent basis. Yet it was intriguing to hear Jagielka having the confidence to debate the Cole-Baines issue and side with the Chelsea player against his Everton team-mate. "It is a difficult one. Do you get a place in the team and keep it until you deserve to lose it, or do you lose it because you have done nothing wrong but someone else is potentially liked more by the press and coaching staff? I think Ash has performed to such a level he does not deserve to lose his place – and Bainesy is one of my closest friends.

"It is hard to say that directly to Bainesy. He has been fantastic for us at Everton, player of the year for the last few seasons, but unfortunately for him the person he has tried to nudge out of the way has also performed very well, particularly in an England shirt."

Hodgson had instructed his players to hit the ball long in Kiev. Now the emphasis in training was for greater refinement. "Training has been brilliant today," Wilshere said. "We have worked on a lot of things and we would like to play that possession game a little bit more."

Later, the players were called to a team meeting for Hodgson to emphasise the importance of these fixtures, what it would mean to reach the World Cup and how crushing it would be if England, still without a win in qualifying outside of their games against San Marino and Moldova, did not make it to Brazil.

More than anything, it was his chance to start detailing his tactics and show his players the video analysis the FA has collated of their opponents. "It's all about changing your style of play," Wilshere said. "You have to know your opposition. We watched Ukraine and we saw they pressed hard.

"The last thing we wanted to do was over-play, get caught in our own half and when they won the ball they were right on to us. Montenegro will be similar to Brazil, they will sit back and invite us on to them. We have to be patient. We have to keep the ball and find a way to break them down." The alternative, as Hodgson will be acutely aware, is barely worth thinking about.