Two wins against Montenegro and Poland will book a World Cup 2014 place – otherwise the vilification process will begin
International football often tends towards the epic, the overblown and the giddily emotive. Sometimes, though, it can present a beautifully simple challenge. For Roy Hodgson the qualification double-header against Montenegro and Poland has solidified, almost by stealth, into what looks like a defining long weekend: five days that might well decide not just whether he keeps his job to the end of the year but exactly how – and football is cruel in these things – his oddly lukewarm tenure as England manager will be remembered.
If this is not quite Roy on the brink then it is perhaps Roy on the brink of the brink. Qualification with this squad would represent unarguable success. On the other hand should his five days in October turn sour Hodgson will have overseen arguably the most underwhelming qualification campaign in England's history. Graham Taylor lost out narrowly to a Holland team containing Dennis Bergkamp and Ronald Koeman. Don Revie could point to Italy, Steve McClaren a decent Croatia. Whereas from here Hodgson's England must edge out Ukraine and Montenegro, a nation the size of Glasgow whose most prolific fit striker has six goals in international football. These are fine margins indeed.
Appearing at the Grove hotel on Thursday morning, at the start of what are likely to be the most intensely scrutinised five days of his 37-year managerial career, England's manager made a decent stab at presenting an undisturbed veneer of bullish expectancy.
Looking impossibly, teeth-grittingly relaxed in light-blue sponsored tracksuit top, Hodgson was, if anything, perhaps a little monotonous in his insistence that nothing had yet come close to disturbing his familiar air of owlish serenity. We know from history what England managers on the brink of the brink are supposed to look like: haunted, frazzled, oozing at the gills with curdled anxiety. Hodgson didn't look like any of these things, producing instead a performance with just the occasional tremor.
"I'm just really anxious – not anxious, anxious is the wrong word, I'm excited about tomorrow," he said at one point. Would fear play a role at all? "No. We've never discussed not qualifying within the camp. Words like fear or anxiety or concern haven't crossed our mind." It almost felt like a small betrayal when Steven Gerrard, who unlike his manager really has been here before many times, offered a little unvarnished honesty. "It's right up there with the most critical games I've played for England," Gerrard said of his imminent 106th cap. Next to him Hodgson smiled tolerantly, like a stage actor very courteously waiting for his errant co-star to return to the script.
There was evidence of some additional caution. This time round Hodgson will not be naming his team 24 hours in advance, a welcome change from last month. He did, though, stop short of committing himself to a more progressive performance after the migrainous direct football rearguard of Kiev. "It's nice to have so many strikers come into this game having scored goals for their clubs," Hodgson admitted, before talking a little ominously about not giving anything away and the folly of adopting a "gung-ho approach".
This is, of course, entirely correct, although it is here that Hodgson begins to slide into slightly difficult territory. Naturally he cannot be held responsible for the lack of depth or of genuine high-ceilinged talent in his squad. But there is still a strong case Hodgson should be held responsible not for a failure to qualify, but for the manner in which England have tried to succeed.
Pragmatism and the comfort blanket of hoof-and-run in tricky times is all very well, but when it comes up short you're left with little more than a sense of a fine and intelligent man with the wrong set of answers in his pocket. Hodgson may be the only England manager ever to use the word "polyvalent" in a press conference, but his innovations stop there. Instead he remains bound up inexorably in an outdated style of play that even Sweden have rejected as being a little too Hodgson.
He is a hugely astute and seasoned operator within his own boundaries. Whether it is possible to imagine Hodgson as the figurehead of a new dawn in English football should his team fall short is another matter entirely.
"There will be lots of good teams that don't get there but I am convinced that it won't be us," Hodgson said at one point: a double-negative call-to-arms in among the unrelenting positives from an England manager poised at the start his own defining long weekend.