When the England team walk out at Wembley on Tuesday it will be 403 days since their World Cup qualifiers began at the Moldova national stadium in Chisinau with the eastern bloc tenements in the background and approximately one police officer for every 10 spectators. Qualification is a long march at the best of times, and this campaign has demanded a lot of patience.
Even in 2013, England’s qualifying for major tournaments still feels like a throwback. The quiet, friendly capital city of a young nation that yields a bear-pit stadium when night falls. The tiny dressing rooms. The inadequate stadium roof. The consistent – nay, provocative – misspelling of James Milner’s name in the match-day programme.
These games reach the parts of Europe other competitions do not reach. Especially in an era when the Champions League rarely requires the big boys to stray outside their own elite and the Europa League has been downgraded. By contrast, international qualification is volatile, atmospheric and, if you happen to follow England, often unpredictable.
Roy Hodgson’s players require one last win against Poland and, to use the language of the defeated talent show contestant, it has been one hell of a journey. Hodgson is one win away from the best mid-October holiday of his life, or the sort of career downturn that means, at best, he might be managing Derby County in six years’ time.
Against Montenegro on Friday night, admittedly the 27th-ranked nation in the world, there was the glimmer of a plan coming together. It was an England team which attacked from the very start and looked, even in spite of their mediocre opponents, balanced and confident. It helped too that players such as Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, only a substitute on Friday, were for once available.
Invited afterwards to reflect on his bold selection of Andros Townsend, Hodgson argued that he might have picked certain younger players much sooner, given the chance. “Daniel Sturridge would have been playing regularly if he’d not been injured,” he said. “People need to see beyond these things.”
By which he meant that the England team tends to be a story that the English public pick up anew every international break, forgetting the old plot lines and crucial details of last time. Pick your way through the micro-detail of any England manager’s career and there are the injuries and the absentees that bedevil every squad meeting, many of which are forgotten when the big verdict is delivered.
Hodgson started the job with a crack at a European Championship someone else had qualified for. He was sent straight to the sweet trolley without having to plough his way through the main course, and having done his best to deal with that challenge, it felt like he started the job anew for the second time in August last year.
That squad to face Moldova last September tells its own story, including, as it did, John Terry, Andy Carroll, Adam Johnson, Joleon Lescott and Ryan Bertrand. Or, as it turned out: one rancorous international retirement, another lost to injury and three who have, in their own ways, either played themselves out of contention or disappeared from their club sides.
The scope of change over the last 13 months has been significant, with 31 players used so far in nine qualifiers. Only Joe Hart has started every qualifier; after that those with the most starts are Steven Gerrard (seven) and Frank Lampard, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jagielka (all six).
Since Euro 2012, Gareth Barry, Scott Parker, Jake Livermore, Steven Caulker, Ryan Shawcross, Carl Jenkinson and Leon Osman, among others, have come and gone. It is worth bearing in mind that when last September’s injury crisis gripped, Danny Graham was regarded in some quarters as an option for Hodgson. These days he is probably behind Gary Neville for a squad number.
By the time England played Ukraine at Wembley in September last year, four days after that first qualifier against Moldova, it was estimated that Hodgson was without 12 players injured or ill who would otherwise have been included.
That will be not be accepted as an excuse if, tomorrow night, it is Ukraine who win Group H and those two points dropped last September prove decisive. But it does go some way to explaining how long it takes for an England manager to get to grips with what is at his disposal.
It has cost Hodgson a few false starts to reach this moment. His predecessor Fabio Capello struggled along for his first six months in charge in 2008, the nadir being his 2-2 draw at Wembley with the Czech Republic that was roundly slagged off by Harry Redknapp in the Setanta studio. Three weeks later Capello’s England beat Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb and he never looked back in 2010 World Cup qualification.
Hodgson has required a run right up to the last qualifier to deliver a performance in qualifying that even gets close to that night against Croatia. If his players could beat Poland decisively, then it would offer some hope that a team was at least developing an identity eight months from Brazil. Let’s not get carried away with the notion that this is a young team either: the average age of Friday’s side was 29.
England walk out at Wembley tomorrow with many of the big dogs of Europe already safe. Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, as well as Belgium and Switzerland, have qualified. Spain need only beat Georgia at home to join them. For England it could yet end in a play-off place. Even if they do beat Poland they are still deciding what kind of team they want to be.
Nevertheless, after their development over nine often painful qualifying matches, Friday night’s performance was infinitely preferable to other paths Hodgson’s England might have trod.
Townsend’s thoroughly modern path to the top
Andros Townsend’s career path has been mapped out by Tottenham’s technical co-ordinator Tim Sherwood and his staff, who have put the winger through a very modern English football apprenticeship: a cycle of loan spells that have helped him navigate the path from academy to first team. From Yeovil Town on to Leyton Orient, MK Dons, Ipswich Town, Watford, Millwall, Leeds, Birmingham and Queen’s Park Rangers, Townsend has played on loan in the Championship and League One as well as the Premier League.
He was unhappy at Leeds and moved on to Birmingham. At Watford, Malky Mackay sent him back to Harry Redknapp. Spurs loaned him back out to Millwall. Later Redknapp recruited him at QPR in the midst of a relegation battle. Not every loan has been a success but there is no doubting that the player produced at the end of the process delivered in style for the national team on Friday night.
Spurs have worked hard to place him at the right clubs and then find other options when the trail has gone cold. There will be a lot of young players at leading Premier League clubs with big first-team squads who will look at Townsend and want the same career path. It begs the question whether many of them will still see such a benefit in the Premier League’s Under-21s league, the new season of which starts this week. It is still the source of much scepticism at clubs trying to develop their own Townsends.
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