The well-being of Andros Townsend before Tuesday night’s final qualifier at Wembley is suddenly a matter of concern. How quickly the scene shifts in football. Friday’s shock selection was Tuesday’s talking point for different reasons. The thought that he might be absent through an injury reported on Saturday was a source of some disappointment before an upbeat report on his fitness during training on Monday lifted spirits.
The vibrant performance of the 22-year-old debutant from Tottenham Hotspur is symbolic of the mood swing in the England camp under Roy Hodgson. They go into the deciding fixture against Poland on a rising tide of renewal, invigorated by the injection of fresh blood and a result against Montenegro that demonstrated what is possible when the chains come off this team. The question is: did Hodgson go far enough?
Though England found their trigger points early in the second half, there were moments in the first, acknowledged by captain Steven Gerrard, when they ran into the same ceiling that so often limits them and the crowd became restless. There was no shortage of effort or desire, but as hard as they shoved, there was no ground gained.
At the heart of the failure to break Montenegro down early was the midfield dynamic that has sorely troubled this generation. Gerrard is an exceptional footballer. No midfielder has proved more effective attacking the box than Frank Lampard since Bryan Robson was in his pomp but when they are paired together in deep midfield the duplication of roles makes England look one-paced in a part of the pitch that requires invention as well as industry.
Hodgson is probably too far down the qualification road to split that pairing tonight, valuing as he does the experience that comes with 207 caps combined, but if England are truly to tap into this new-found enthusiasm and justify claims that there really is a pool of young talent worthy of our hopes in Brazil next year then tonight must be the beginning of the end for the Gerrard/Lampard axis.
Some might recall how England experienced a rapid upgrade in performance and morale when injury and suspension forced Bobby Robson to rethink his team at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. After defeat to Portugal England were labouring against Morocco when Captain Fantastic Robson’s shoulder popped out and Ray Wilkins was sent off. The team’s central cog was ripped out to be replaced by Glenn Hoddle and Peter Reid. England escaped with a goalless draw in Monterrey but in the next match they smashed tonight’s opponents 3-0 with a Gary Lineker hat-trick.
Lineker has become the voice of dissent among the football aristocracy, imploring Hodgson to be bold after the bore draw in Ukraine. He has some expertise in the transformation business, cracking a double against Paraguay in the last 16 to take England to the quarter-finals, an outcome that looked at best unlikely after the opening defeat. It took the Hand of God plus, in his mortal incarnation as Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest goal ever scored to see off the English challenge.
Almost three decades on Hodgson finds himself with a similar dilemma. The players he trusts most in the heart of the pitch are those whose potential has been exhausted. We know how matters end when Stevie G and Lamps share space in major tournaments. Hodgson has also shown with the inclusion of Townsend over James Milner down the right that he values flair and youth, which ought to ease Jack Wilshere’s frustrations should he be asked to start on the bench again tonight.
Wilshere was given only 10 minutes on Friday. Hodgson acknowledged the decision to leave him out was not easy. “All the midfield players are in contention. They were for the first game [Montenegro]. We have fantastic players in that part of the field. Frank and Steven did exceptionally well. It was heartache not to pick another combination, which we know will do the job for us.”
Hodgson has been at pains to strike the right tone, to balance the contradictory impulses to freshen and conserve. We should not expect wholesale changes at the outset but the manager might have to sharpen the knife sooner than he would like if the goals do not come against a Poland side notionally superior to Montenegro. Though he has banished all negativity, Hodgson has not discounted the possibility that the result could go against his team. “I don’t think I could put a more confident bunch on the field,” he said. “But it’s not a science. It’s a game and something untoward can always happen.”
Haunted by the memory of the 2007 defeat to Croatia in the final qualifying match for Euro 2008, an episode he describes as the lowest point of his career, Gerrard, too, is thinking only of victory. The England captain speaks of the night-and-day difference in atmosphere on the eve of this match. England were shorn of key players six years ago and beset by a mindset that could never quite shed the crippling undertow of fear.
“I don’t think it [pressure] will ever disappear totally. There’s a huge expectation among the fans. But the word fear isn’t helpful. There is pressure, but you’ve got to be excited by games like this, being in this position. I’m looking forward to the game. I think, at times, the team has played with too much fear and pressure on, but Roy has created an atmosphere that is very relaxed but very professional, and he has shown the trust in the players.”
Townsend was the 50th player selected by Hodgson. The net shrinks with victory tonight. Hodgson knows the core of the squad that might advance on Brazil, though he is allowing for a bolter from the Under-21s to make a case for inclusion. You can take that as an invitation to Ravel Morrison to continue to build on the promise he has shown at West Ham this season. Should Morrison continue to serve up YouTube exhibitions like the one against San Marino last week the decision to retire the Gerrard/Lampard tandem will make itself.