By Wayne Veysey at Wembley
The road to Rio now beckons for England.
Roy Hodgson need not go into hiding and there will be no effigies burned of the players. For at least eight months.
Long-time England observers will note that autumn internationals at Wembley are hardly a reliable guide for tournament football in June, coming as it does at the end of a debilitating domestic campaign.
However, Michel Platini’s theory that England are lions in the autumn but turn to lambs in the summer can be tested another day.
For now, Hodgson, his coaching staff and a fairly unremarkable squad can rejoice in a job very well done.
Their task was to qualify for Brazil 2014 and they have done so. Unexpectedly, the assignment has been completed in some style.
There will be no need for the nail-shredding drama of a two-legged November play-off, or media-led autopsies into why English youngsters can’t keep the ball as well as their Continental equivalents.
Instead, Hodgson can reflect that he presided over the most memorable England performance of Wembley’s seven-year second coming.
The hosts clinched qualification with a 2-0 victory. It sounds routine but it was anything but. The result does not tell the story of a pulsating match and an attacking tour de force from the home side that was as surprising as it was spellbinding.
Hodgson has spent the best part of 40 years establishing a reputation as a cautious coach who sets his teams up to contain. His tactics are regarded as rigid and, at times, dour.
Not in the last two, must-win matches, when the script has been ripped up and replaced by a shiny, cavalier blueprint.
The Wayne Rooney-led front four had served notice of their potential in the 4-1 dismantling of Montenegro on Friday.
But, with the pressure even greater and with the flight to Brazil agonisingly close to being booked, Hodgson threw caution to the wind, selected another adventurous team and urged his players to attack. And attack some more.
On an electrifying evening, England responded in a manner that laid to rest the ghosts of the ‘Wally in the brolly’ and so-called clowns in goal.
With 18,000 tickets officially sold to the Poland fans, and possibly a few more thousand unofficially, there was a rarified atmosphere at Wembley.
Dozens of red flares were lit during the Poland national anthem, which left plumes of thick smoke filling the stadium for much of the opening period. England supporters responded with the lustiest rendition of God Save The Queen since Wembley was rebuilt. It felt like a cup final, minus the corporate hangers-on.
Poland, whose hopes of qualifying for the World Cup had been extinguished by defeat to Ukraine last Friday, made for dangerous opponents. They had amazing support, nothing to lose and some A-list players, most notably Borussia Dortmund duo Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski.
In Wembley’s second coming, it has not witnessed an atmosphere to match this. Or, too many games of such tempo and entertainment.
The first half was the perfect reminder of what makes football such compelling drama.
England, needing a victory to secure top place in Group H, poured forward at every opportunity. Poland, roared on by their fanatical support, soaked up the pressure and counter-attacked with pace and precision.
Hodgson’s pulse rate must have gone off the scale when an early one-on-one fell to Lewandowski, but the arch-predator uncharacteristically screwed his shot wide.
Yet, England carried on where they left off against Montenegro on Friday. With Steven Gerrard at his dynamic best, Andros Townsend creating havoc on the right and Leighton Baines replicating his Everton form on the left, there was a rhythm and energy to the home attacks. Yet glorious chances came and then went, with Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge especially wasteful.
Finally, the incessant Polish whistling that greeted England’s domination was drowned out four minutes before half-time.
Baines found space again down the left, curled a perfect delivery on to the head of Rooney and, from eight yards out, the No.10 thundered a powerful header into the right-hand side of the goal.
It was a fine finish from a player who has made a habit of it in an England shirt. Rooney’s recent international scoring record bears the closest scrutiny; seven goals in his last six qualifiers have taken him to 37 in England’s all-time chart, 12 behind Bobby Charlton’s table-topping 49.
The game followed a broadly similar script in the second half. England kept their foot on the accelerator in search of a second goal and the visitors counter-attacked menacingly.
Had Lewandowski been wearing a Borussia Dortmund shirt rather than a Poland one, you would have backed him to steer his poked shot past the on-rushing Joe Hart at the hour mark. The England No.1 has had his critics of late but he got enough of his body in the way to take the sting out of the danger.
Hodgson turned to Frank Lampard to settle the growing nerves. With the whistle drawing near, Jack Wilshere was also summoned to shore up the midfield. Finally, England were merely protecting their lead.
But Gerrard, who had been part of a forrmidable front five for most of the game, steamed forward once again and guaranteed England’s participation at the World Cup finals next summer with a toe-poke past the advancing Wojciech Szczesny.
The skipper wheeled away in celebration and, in the technical area, England’s coaching staff momentarily lost themselves in their relief and delight. Hodgson grabbed the nearest bodies to cuddle and his No.2, Ray Lewington, jigged down the right touchline like the latterday love child of Jose Mourinho and David Pleat.
Wembley roared its approval. It was captivating stuff. Only the coldest of hearts would have remained unmoved.
A Tuesday, October evening in north-west London is a far cry from Porto Alegre in June.
But Hodgson has steered England to next summer’s World Cup and he will be remembered for doing it in some style.