LONDON — They say it is the hope that kills you, but it is the hope that accompanies you on the journey that is almost always better than the destination itself.
On Friday, England’s players at least allowed their fans—83,807 of whom gave Wembley Stadium a noise and bounce that it has so rarely had in recent years—to continue to hope, to continue to dream of what might be next summer in Brazil.
While automatic qualification from Group H is still not yet assured, a play-off spot (where they will certainly be one of the four seeded teams) effectively is, courtesy of a 4-1 win over Montenegro that was only truly clinched in the closing minutes.
Nevertheless, such knowledge provides a safety net that should enable England to play with slightly more freedom and adventure when they return to the same venue on Tuesday to face Poland, knowing a win will guarantee their place in Brazil.
Is there a saying in betting about never gambling on a gambler? If there is, Andros Townsend might know it.
In June of this year, the Tottenham winger was banned for a month (with three further months suspended, pending any further infractions, until 2016) for betting on professional football matches.
Yet on Friday, he was Roy Hodgson’s wild-card selection as the England manager looked to replace the injured Theo Walcott down the right side of his attack.
Rather than opt for the “safer” option of James Milner (“cautious” would be another word for it) or play Danny Welbeck on the right and ask Jack Wilshere to do a shift on the left, as he has done recently at club level for Arsenal, Hodgson opted to give Townsend his international debut.
It was a gamble that paid off handsomely.
First, the winger was instrumental in England’s opening goal, running fully 70 yards down the right touchline before whipping in a dangerous cross that, after only being half-cleared, Wayne Rooney bundled home at the second attempt.
Then came the critical moment of the game. Minutes after England’s lead had been halved by Dejan Damjanovic’s poacher’s finish, Townsend took the ball off Welbeck and ran purposefully at goal, unleashing a fearsome right-footed drive that curled away from the despairing goalkeeper, Vukasin Poleksic, and into the net off the inside of the near post.
Hodgson’s reaction to Townsend’s goal said it all—barely believing that his decision had paid such dividends.
Speaking to ITV after the match, Hodgson admitted there had been much debate over the Townsend selection.
When pressed further on whether he was the one doing the persuading on needing persuading, Hodgson offered the tantalising prospect that he was not initially in favour of what is, perhaps, the biggest selection of his tenure to date.
In his post-match press conference, the manager said:
I’m quite prepared to mention that it was a subject for discussion, because we had a lot of good players to choose from. Believe me, there was lots of talking back and forth.
But you’ll never know [if I was initially for or against him playing], unless we had a few spies at the team hotel.
In truth, Townsend’s individual effort put the gloss on an otherwise stereotypical England display—full of endeavour and discipline but lacking a certain imagination and flair.
The home side were at least eager from the off—symbolised by Welbeck jumping into the opponent’s half before the referee had even blown his whistle to get the game underway—and dominated the first half, without creating a true gilt-edged goalscoring chance.
Left-back Leighton Baines, Hodgson’s other new face from recent qualifiers (although this one a result of injury to Ashley Cole, rather than a tactical decision), was England’s most effective attacker, creating a number of chances for Welbeck and Steven Gerrard.
But it was Rooney who missed the half’s best chance, crashing his effort into the side-netting with Montenegro’s goalkeeper grounded after parrying away Townsend’s deflected drive.
By this point, Ukraine had won in Poland to put themselves top of the group, meaning that—with their last game against the helpless and hopeless San Marino—England needed to win to have any realistic hope of automatic qualification.
Hodgson focused minds at half-time, demanding more incision from his side in the final third.
"It was a tough game," Hodgson noted. "They didn't panic, and they were quite good on the counter-attack I thought. There was that anxiety that we might just meet a wall of players [all game].
"We were a bit sharper around the box in the second half, which is what we talked about [at the break], and we got the goals."
It took just four minutes for his side to show a response—Townsend gallivanting down the touchline before firing in a low cross that was only half-cleared, allowing Welbeck to run on and place a shot at goal. That was denied by Poleksic, but Rooney was on the scene first to bring the ball under his control and turn it home.
Wembley roared with relief.
The second goal was blind fortune—Branko Boskovic, the unlucky defender turning into his own net as Welbeck tried to return the ball to Sturridge after the Liverpool striker’s classy knock-on down the left.
Poleksic was, perhaps, slow in reacting to Boskovic’s touch—perhaps showing the rust having only relatively recently returned from a two-year ban for failing to report match-fixing offences.
Then came another trademark England attribute—making the certain uncertain once again. That came on 71 minutes, the lively Dejan Damjanovic prodding past Hart—who, otherwise, had a competent game, rewarding Hodgson’s faith in him—from substitute Fatos Beqiraj’s driven shot.
Another away goal would have been devastating to England’s World Cup plans, but instead Townsend popped up to put the tie beyond doubt.
"They had wind in their sails [after Damjanovic’s goal]," Hodgson acknowledged. "Andros’ goal took the wind out of their sails.
"He made a big impact. It can’t be easy making his debut in a game of that nature, but he deserves all the credit which I am sure he will get because he played very well."
Daniel Sturridge’s 90th-minute penalty—won by him and so, despite Rooney’s presence on the pitch, converted by him too—was simply the icing on the cake.
"Maybe 4-1, the final result, is too harsh," Branko Brnovic, Montenegro's coach, offered through a translator. "But England was the better team today, I cannot say anything more."
England were, undoubtedly, the better side on the night, but they are still not a great side. They may not even be a particularly good one.
But at least they can still hope. There is still the prospect that those flaws can be addressed in time for the Three Lions to play a role at this World Cup, not the next European Championships or major tournaments after that.
"The job is half-done," Hodgson noted. "If we want to qualify direct we have to win against Poland on Tuesday night. That won’t be easy. That will be very tough.
"[But] I always back the players. I trust the players.
"Nine games now we’re still unbeaten in this group. I think we’re quite capable of going unbeaten through the 10th."