England shakes ghosts of 1973, beats Poland to earn World Cup berth
As Steven Gerrard forced the ball past Wojciech Sczeszny to cap a 2-0 win and seal England's passage to Brazil, Roy Hodgson breathed a mighty sigh of relief, leapt to his feet and scampered a gleeful jig down the touchline. In doing so, he seemed to embody the mood of the nation.
"I died 1000 deaths every time they crossed the halfway line, which is what you do," he said. "There's a lot of emotions churning inside me. We came through, it's job done and we're all very happy about that."
It was the sort of night when England, haunted by the specters of failures past, seeks any omen for reassurance. When it drew 1-1 against Poland to miss out on the 1974 World Cup -- 40 years ago to the week -- it was raining; when it lost 3-2 to Croatia to miss out on Euro 2008, it was raining. Fans looked to the skies Tuesday with relief: the clouds of earlier in the afternoon had parted to leave a crisp, cool night.
It didn't take long though for the ghosts of 1973 to raise themselves again. That night, England created chance after chance but was thwarted by the woodwork, a string of last-gasp clearances and, most notoriously, the goalkeeping of Jan Tomaszewski, who had been dubbed a clown before kickoff by Brian Clough. England was caught on the break to concede a soft goal 40 years ago and, although Allan Clarke converted a penalty, a 1-1 draw ensured Poland's passage to West Germany while England stayed at home.
Who knows whether footballers think of such things in the heat of a game -- you suspect not -- but there were plenty watching who saw the parallels, foremost among them Tomaszewski himself, who was seated in a VIP box after a grueling round of self-publicizing interviews (He has become one of Poland's most consistently contrarian figures, somebody journalists can always rely on to say something controversial if they need a story).
Again and again England surged forward. It had chance after chance. Wojciech Szczesny made save after save. There were crosses blocked and diverted just wide. Danny Welbeck kept running into good positions and being let down by heavy first touches. Andros Townsend thumped the bar. And all the time there was the menace of Poland on the break.
Twice it swept forward from England corners -- evoking, in the 1973 parallels, Grzegorz Lato -- and twice Robert Lewandowski failed to play the Jan Domarski role and slip a shot under an England goalkeeper. First he scuffed his effort and Joe Hart saved easily, then he shot across the face of the goal and wide.
Just as twitchiness was beginning to set in, though, just as the most raucous atmosphere the new Wembley has known -- one helped immeasurably by the presence of an estimated 20,000 Polish fans -- was beginning to slip into anxiousness, just as Hodgson looked to be completing his transformation from nervous owl to grey-faced Liberace, Wayne Rooney struck. As if to say he meant business, he took off the headband he wears to protect a gash to his forehead and, moments later, was glancing in a cross from Baines with the mix of precision and purposefulness that characterizes his best play.
For a time, Wembley relaxed, but the longer the second half went on without the comfort of a second goal, the more the nerves returned. Lewandowski had another glaring chance but jabbed his finish into Joe Hart. The uneasiness continued until, with two minutes remaining, Steven Gerrard bundled his way through and stabbed the ball over Szczesny. In his courage and sheer persistence, it was a goal reminiscent of Bryan Robson; in the reliance on physical effort over finesse, it perhaps said much about England's performance in general.
England will go away from the game relieved to be going to Brazil -- for there is always an element of muddling through about qualifying, with the intermittent nature of the fixtures making it almost impossible to generate any kind of rhythm or mutual understanding -- and encouraged by a far more fluent attacking performance than it has produced since the early days under Fabio Capello.
Where there must be concern is the openness of the game. There was something frenetic about the display, little sense of control. Hodgson was perhaps prepared to risk that to try to overwhelm a Poland side with nothing to play for other than pride. He was perhaps even prepared to play on his cautious reputation to create an element of surprise. Given how many chances England created, the extent to which it dominated the game, he can hardly be criticized. But against better sides next summer, there will need to be a greater element of control.
Still, Hodgson comes out of the whole campaign well. There were lows -- the home draw against Ukraine, and the slip-ups having taken the lead against in Poland and Montenegro -- but England grew as the qualifiers progressed, from the fine defensive display in Ukraine to the convincing wins in the past week.
"This team is growing in terms of accepting pressure," Hodgson said. "The real beauty is the blend between experienced players and younger payers is good."
After all the gloom and all the doubts, there is a rare sense of satisfaction about England, perhaps even a glimmer of optimism about its prospects next summer.