Roy Hodgson dogged by uncertainty ahead of a World Cup England cannot afford to miss
Failure to reach Brazil would be far worse than 2008 flop and the route to Rio is littered with hazards
By the time, the Football Association reaches its 150th anniversary next May it will be on the brink of appointing yet another new chairman, an individual who will once again have to define the role of his organisation within the volatile, high-stakes world of modern English football. Of all the challenges that will face the new man, the one he does not need is doubts over the England team reaching the 2014 World Cup finals.
If Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Poland felt like it was a significant game in the life of Roy Hodgson's England then the 1-1 draw in Warsaw means that the fixture away to Montenegro in March is even bigger. By then, the side from the tiny former Yugoslav republic – population 625,000, just less than Sheffield – will potentially be top of Group H, given that they have two qualifiers over a period in which England have just one.
Montenegro and England will both play San Marino before they face one other in Podgorica on 26 March. Montenegro play the Sammarinese next month and then Moldova, away, on 22 March. Providing both teams take maximum points from their games, England will find themselves two points behind Montenegro when they come to play them. It is hardly a disastrous state of affairs but it is enough to make the Montenegro match a turning point in the group.
England are still in a strong position but there is not much room for error in their six games remaining in this campaign, of which the away and home games against Montenegro and the matches against Ukraine (away) and Poland (home) are the most difficult. Under Fabio Capello, England drew three games on their way to qualifying top of their group for Euro 2012, and then they played eight games, rather than the 10 they will have in World Cup qualification.
The value of England's point in Poland will emerge when Ukraine go there in March and Montenegro play there in September. The Poles, also unbeaten, remain a force in the group. The problem is that, as Hodgson embarks on five months with no qualifying game, two tough friendlies against Sweden and Brazil and a lot of watching Premier League games in the stands, there are no cast-iron certainties.
"I still think you'll find that come November we'll be very much in the mix," Hodgson said. "If sometimes you've got to fight your way for something, rather than just sail through, that can help. If you look at the Euros, Russia and Holland sailed through but neither of them got out of their groups, though they'd qualified unbeaten.
"Italy went there with loads and loads and loads of problems, we were led to believe, not the least politically – and they ended up in the final. I'm anxious to make us play as well as we can play. But I'm equally anxious to make certain we've got those fighting qualities that England has always been famous for and we don't lose them."
He is certainly correct that Italy went to Euro 2012 with problems over the match-fixing scandal that forced left-back Domenico Criscito to withdraw from the squad in the build-up. But in qualification Italy were unbeaten, winning eight games and drawing two. In fact, of the four semi-finalists at Euro 2012, only Portugal had lost a game in qualification – they lost twice and came second in their group.
While the great story of Denmark in 1992 – the team that won the European Championship having originally failed to qualify – lives on, a good qualification campaign is generally an indicator, although not a guarantee, of success at the tournament itself.
At the 2010 World Cup, finalists Spain and the Netherlands both had 100 per cent records in qualifying. On the way to Euro 2008, Spain also won their qualifying group, although they lost twice, including to Northern Ireland. The other finalists that year, Germany, lost just once in qualifying. In qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, winners Italy lost once in qualifying and runners-up, France, were unbeaten.
It will be some comfort to Hodgson that England are still unbeaten in qualification and the last time they failed to reach a tournament – Euro 2008 –they had already lost by this stage. But as with the development of the team itself, it is uncertain. What no one wants to consider at the FA is the prospect of not qualifying for Brazil, a World Cup finals that has even greater significance because of the country hosting it.
"The players know that," Hodgson said. "It would be teaching my grandmother to suck eggs if I was to stand up in front of them and tell them that. There's a lot of football still to be played and the bottom line is that this is not an easy group. Poland and Ukraine were at the Euros, we know about Montenegro from the previous campaign. We've always been aware of that.
"It would've been lovely to have got off to a flier and be sitting here with 12 points. But you don't get what you want by asking for it. You get what you want by playing for it. Ukraine played very well at Wembley and deserved their point. Poland played well and deserved their point. We've got to be disappointed because we couldn't produce a good enough performance in those games to get six points."
It is a curious feature of the FA that it would vote to curtail the reign of the same chairman who appointed Hodgson on the very same day that the England manager has a crucial World Cup qualifier. Even given the previous night's postponement it seemed a strange way to go about business given the pressure already on Hodgson and his players following the rain delay.
David Bernstein's successor as chairman will inherit all the old problems the FA has keeping itself relevant in a game dominated by the Premier League's powerful clubs.
There is the challenge of managing the FA Cup's future, the governance of the institution itself, ensuring St George's Park returns a profit, among many others, but the one the organisation is judged on above all is the performance of the England team.
If failing to qualify for Euro 2008 was painful, then being absent from a World Cup finals in Brazil the equivalent of missing Christmas, New Year and all the family's birthdays.
It is still a distant prospect, although this week England have had their warning.
Plain sailing is best: Why Roy's wrong
Roy Hodgson's claim that making hard work of a qualifying campaign can benefit a side at a tournament do not ring true. Both finalists at the last World Cup, Spain and the Netherlands, had a 100 per cent success rate in their qualifiers, while 2006 finalists France were unbeaten in qualification and winners Italy lost just once:
World Cup 2010
Five of the eight quarter-finalists won their qualification group.
World Cup 2006
Six of seven quarter-finalists won their qualification group [Germany qualified as hosts].
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