Forty years ago this week, at the same stadium and against the same opposition, English football suffered one of its least dignified nights yet, to that point. Laying siege to the Polish goal in the manner of [insert clumsy and highly insensitive war analogy here], they could only force the ball over the visiting goal line once, and that, it turned out, was not enough to edge through to the finals in West Germant. In truth, though,it wasn’t the result at Wembley that night that eliminated the team from the 1974 World Cup. An anaemic two-nil defeat in Chorzow some months earlier had been plenty enough to make qualification at a time during which only group winners survived the cut, but the psychological damage was done as the players trudged from the sodden Wembley turf that night. Less than eight years earlier, Alf Ramsey’s team had been the champions of the world. In West Germany in 1974 they would have their faces pressed against the window of the party, looking in.
A lot was written about that night in the build up to last night’s match between England and Poland. Something, opined a lot of very clever people with very clever things to say, was in the air. The decks had been cleared and the fall guys had been set up, Roy Hodgson for being Roy Hodgson and not Harry Redknapp, the FA for selling too many tickets to Polish supporters, Wayne Rooney for wearing a headband. Weather forecasts were checked in delicious anticipation of the vanquished enemies of modern, sophisticated football looking bedraggled as they trudged from the Wembley pitch as their forbears had done so before them four decades earlier. Poland’s sixty-fiffh place in the FIFA world rankings was a myth, we were told. An evening of tasty, tasty disaster was afoot.
And for forty minutes or so last night, it looked as if a repeat of that evening might be on the cards. England didn’t quite decamp around the Polish penalty area, but they dominated possession, creating chance after half-chance, pushing and prodding at Poland’s defence at a pace that fell somewhere between high tempo and the sound of a drum kit being pushed down a flight of stairs. Shortly before half time, however, the pace suddenly dropped. For a two or three minutes, England became unfamiliarly lounge-lizard-like, stroking the ball around the midfield with uncharacteristic ease and confidence for a couple of minutes before, in one simple movement, pushing the ball through a gap for Leighton Baines to cross and Wayne Rooney to glance a precision header into the corner of the goal and lift the albatross of nerves that had been hanging heavy over all bar 18,000 of those present at Wembley since the referee’s whistle first blew.
This being England, of course, there was little sign of anything like a comfort zone until the end was very nearly in sight. Poland may have been playing for pride, but pride can be a powerful emotion and the outcome of the evening might have been considerably different had Robert Lewandowski when faced with a one on one against Joe Hart and allowed the England goalkeeper to block with an outstretched leg. With two minutes to play, captain Steven Gerrard busted his way through the middle of the Polish defence in the manner of a marathon runner straining for the finishing line of a race before bundling the ball over the line to remain any lingering doubts that England would be travelling to Brazil next summer.
The morning after the night before, it feels enough for England to have made it to the party at all. This new realism doesn’t sit very comfortably with the pantomime villain caricature so beloved of some, and it sits equally uneasily with those who, in spite of the repeated evidence of their own eyes, cling to the belief that the players that England produces should somehow be capable of competing at a higher plane than the glass ceiling that they have repeatedly smacked their heads against for the overwhelming majority of the last half century or so. This qualification proves that Roy Hodgson is a canny enough coach. There were potential pratfalls all over this group, but his team managed to avoid them. Last night, when his team needed to not be frozen in the headlights of a pressurised occasion, he coaxed a positive, confident performance from a team that seldom reaches either the highs that some demand from them or the absolute dismality that others expect and often hope for from them.
And that, perhaps, should be enough. In the sharply polarised culture that we now inhabit, though, it will be unlikely to be. England almost certainly aren’t going to win the World Cup next summer. We know that much already. The defence still has the potential to blunder its way into troubling cul-de-sacs and the gap between this team, however bright they might look in patches, and very best in the world remains one that is best travelled via the usage of a matter transporter. There is no Lionel Messi, no Neymar and no Cristiano Ronaldo in this England team, and that spark of the unexpected that the best in the world can bring can make the difference between reaching the latter stages of a competition and failing to do so. And at some point, some tabloid hack or other is going to say something really, really dumb, and then it can all start again. But never mind. Next summer, the party will start in Brazil with England present and there is even an outside chance that this team might not stink out the tournament in the way that its predecessors did in 2010 and 2006. As long as everybody keeps a healthy sense of perspective about it all, next summer might be that bad after all.
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