The ghosts of England's past seemed like they were everywhere at the new Wembley, as the smoke from the Polish flares hung low like a 1970s throwback. Don't blow it. Don't cock things up. Don't mention the Dark Ages. Don't fall apart at the critical moment in the manner that so many of the white-shirted predecessors to Roy Hodgson's team have done over history.
At times it has felt like England have courted calamity in World Cup qualification, delaying their stand-out performances to the very end, but they are going to Brazil next summer. The glasses can clink and the champagne corks pop at the 150th anniversary party for the Football Association later this month without a lingering sense of foreboding about a November play-off.
“F*** me,” Roy Hodgson said at one point when the ITV cameras panned in on him after one particularly dangerous Poland attack. Those two words might well have been the epitaph for the whole night's action. First, a whirlwind from Poland. Then a response from England in the second part of the first half that was the best they have mustered in the Hodgson era.
That last 20 minutes of the second half, against a determined, well-organised Poland team Hodgson's team sent waves of attack crashing against the away side's defence until eventually Wayne Rooney gave them the lead with a glancing header. He did so with his forehead unadorned by that headband accessory that is protecting his scar, having briefly discarded it. This was business time for England, and they rose to the occasion.
English football has felt pretty bad about itself at times over the last year, and for all the backslapping, the problems that Greg Dyke's FA commission must address still exist. But given the alternative to qualifying for Brazil was another exercise in starting from scratch and a lot more self-loathing, then this was infinitely more preferable.
It was not pretty, not in the second half, in fact it was pure bloody agony for the home support with Ukraine, naturally, winning in San Marino and only three points good enough to win Group H. England were up against a Poland team who played as if they had a World Cup place up for grabs or, say, a major incentive from an interested party. Probably it was just sheer pride, but for a team ranked 65th in the world, their performance was remarkable.
When Steven Gerrard finally scored the second with two minutes to play, Roy Hodgson's usually becalmed assistant Ray Lewington charged up and down the touchline alone, lost in his own little world of happiness. On retaking his seat, Hodgson leant back in his chair and looked up at the night-sky with thinly-disguised emotion on his face. It had all been on him and he came through.
“I died a thousand deaths every time they [Poland] crossed the halfway line,” Hodgson said later. He also pointed out that it was fitting that Gerrard finally sealed the place in Brazil, having played a “captain's innings” in qualification. His passing, or at least his ball retention, does not match the rest of his game, but there is so much else, not least the power and energy of that late run that left him stretching to toe the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.
It was a monstrously entertaining first half in particular, played out amid a call-and-response atmosphere set up by the 18,000-strong Polish following. “We're Poland and we're playing at home,” they sang. They booed the England periods of possession and the usually half-interested Wembley crowd responded with indignation and then anger and, suddenly, we had a proper noise under the arch.
Poland were excellent in those opening stages. They had come to play and Hodgson's team were forced to deal with the best of it. Waldemar Sobota should have scored when the Poles worked the ball out to the left channel but he hit the side netting. It was tense and the England players had to face an onslaught that exceeded all expectations.
For a team that began the night fourth in a very average qualifying group, Poland moved the ball around with remarkable purpose. Never more so than in the 23rd minute when they broke the length of the pitch from an England corner eventually playing Robert Lewandowski into that troublesome left channel where his left foot shot across Joe Hart was just wide of the goalkeeper's far post.
These were tense times. In midfield, Michael Carrick, picked ahead of Frank Lampard, found himself closed down in those early stages. This being Carrick, he can still pass the ball beautifully through the briefing shifting spaces of a modern game, but he had to be at his best to do so.
Yet for all Poland's pressure, England eventually found the confidence and courage to play like a team. When they got the ball to Andros Townsend on the right, he never wasted it and always threatened. He committed defenders and got shots away. He looks the part.
In a two minute spell before the half hour, Townsend beat two opponents down the right and fed Daniel Sturridge who spent too long trying to get the ball out from underneath his feet to shoot rather than lay it back to Gerrard on the edge of the box. Next Townsend cut across the area and hit a shot with his left foot that clipped Szczesny's bar. He strikes the ball so cleanly with either foot you would be hard pressed at times to pick his favoured one.
Welbeck and Sturridge, for all their running and inventiveness, should have scored, especially the Manchester United man when the ball bounced up nicely for him in the area on 31 minutes. Gerrard improvised a fine pass on the run to Sturridge three minutes later but his second touch ran away from him. Szczesny saved from Rooney.
And then the breakthrough. An attack that started on the right, was switched left by Carrick to Leighton Baines - another very fine game from him - who picked out Rooney for a glancing header beyond Szczesny to give England a lead at half-time.
There was no sign of the Polish threat being extinguished after half-time, in fact they came back into the game more than in the final stage before the break. A minute into the half, Gary Cahill was obliged to throw himself in front of a shot from the substitute Mateus Klich, on at half-time, with a good opportunity opening up.
When Robert Lewandowski went through on the hour, it took Joe Hart to spread himself wide and get something on the ball to stop the shot going past him. By 65 minutes, England had completely lost the tempo and the control that they had exerted in the second part of the first half. Poland had made two changes then but Hodgson persisted with his starting XI. They looked tired.
It was Lampard who eventually came on in place of Carrick with less than 20 minutes to play, by which time England looked ragged. They were struggling to keep possession of the ball and the longer they were without it, the more they tired in pursuit of it.
Eventually, Jack Wilshere and then James Milner came on to give England greater energy and then, with two minutes left, Gerrard forced his way through Poland's tiring defence. The ball sat up for him and, stretching, he poked it past Szczesny. The job had been done and, in fairness, to Hodgson's players, a major test of character had been passed.
England (4-2-3-1): Hart; Smalling, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines; Gerrard, Carrick (Lampard 71); Townsend (Milner 86), Rooney, Welbeck; Sturridge (Wilshere 82).
Poland (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Celeban, Jedrzejczyk, Glik, Wojtkowiak; M Lewandowski (Klich ht), Krychowiak; Blaszczykowski, Mierzejewski (Zielinski 75), Sobota (Peszko 64); R Lewandowski.
Man of the match Rooney.
Final Group H table
England (Q) 10/6/4/0/31/4/22
Ukraine (P-O) 10/6/3/1/28/4/21
San Marino 10/0/0/10/1/54/0
7 Sept 2012 Moldova 0-5 England. 11 Sept England 1-1 Ukraine. 12 Oct England 5-0 San Marino. 17 Oct Poland 1-1 England. 22 Mar 2013 San Marino 0-8 England. 26 Mar Montenegro 1-1 England. 6 Sept England 4-0 Moldova. 10 Sept Ukraine 0-0 England. 11 Oct England 4-1 Montenegro. 15 Oct England 2-0 Poland.
Play-off draw 21 Oct (matches played 15/19 Nov).
Finals draw 6 Dec.
Finals 12 June-13 July 2014.
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