It was the selection that signalled Roy Hodgson intended to shed the conservative tag he has been encumbered with and boldly shape his and England’s destiny.
Instead of “Steady Eddie” James Milner, the man who never lets England down, he went for the novice. Andros Townsend, who began the season expecting to spend more time on Tottenham’s bench than on the pitch, was handed his first England cap and told to go out and play as if Wembley was the schoolyard. “Get the ball and run at them.”
He did just that, to match-winning effect. Taking up a position hugging the right touchline, and well supplied by his team-mates, he tormented the opposition. Swift, direct and beautifully balanced, Townsend took players on, opened up the Montenegrin defence and, crucially, created chances. The most significant was the one Wayne Rooney took in the 48th minute which broke the deadlock.
The best though, was still to come. Twelve minutes from time, with Dejan Damjanovic’s goal having sent waves of anxiety around Wembley, he picked up the ball midway in the Montenegrin half and ran at the red shirts again. This time, however, he did something different. He slowed his run and whipped a drive in off the post to cap a debut he must have dreamed of when growing up a few miles away across north London.
Though short in theory, the journey to Wembley stardom has been a long one for Townsend. The first stop was Tottenham, but then he was sent on the sort of diversion rail passengers suffer when maintenance work on the line over-runs. He went to Yeovil, then to Leyton Orient, Milton Keynes, Ipswich, Watford, Millwall, Leeds, Birmingham and, finally, Queen’s Park Rangers.
There was a sense as he travelled that his career lacked direction. Some of the loan moves were terminated early and he walked out of Leeds without even saying goodbye, lured, thought Leeds’s manager at the time, by better terns at Birmingham City. By the time he arrived at Loftus Road he was in his 22nd year and in danger of being held up as a classic example of the way English talent gets lost on the path from academy to first team.
But at QPR, despite being pitched into a divided dressing room of wastrels, triers and salary men, Townsend flourished. Harry Redknapp may never be England manager but in handing Townsend the platform to shine he has done his bit for English football and England’s World Cup campaign.
After QPR, Townsend’s rise still had some way to go, however. He had barely returned to Tottenham when he was charged by the Football Association with breaching betting regulations. Footballers spend a lot of time getting bored in hotel rooms and Townsend, it transpired, had whiled away the time betting on televised matches. This is unlikely to be a rare practice, but he was one of the few to get caught.
Townsend was fined £18,000 and banned for four months with three suspended. He did not miss any matches as he had already pulled out of the European Under-21 Championship. This seemed a blow at the time but England were so poor that it proved a good tournament to miss.
Townsend had still to gain a regular place for Spurs but fate played a hand. Aaron Lennon’s injury provided an opening that he seized with alacrity. Bright and sparkling, a raw and adventurous talent, his arrival was nevertheless overshadowed by Ross Barkley’s impact at Everton. He entered the England reckoning under the radar.
Then fate intervened again. Theo Walcott was injured. With the progress of Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha’s rise having stalled Townsend was suddenly the only attacking right winger in the country. Even then his advent was given cover by the various media storms that swirled around Jack Wilshere this week. It looked, in those early stages last night, as if Montenegro had not known what to expect. Even after they began doubling up on Townsend they were unable to suffocate him.
The word is out now. Poland’s coaching staff will be studying videos of Townsend all weekend. On and off the pitch Townsend is about to be asked searching questions. It is to be hoped his long gestation into an overnight success will equip him for the challenges ahead.