It is never three and easy where England qualifying is concerned

England Manager Roy Hodgson (centre) listens to Gary Neville and Ray Lewington (left) during a training session
England Manager Roy Hodgson (centre) listens to Gary Neville and Ray Lewington (left) during a training session
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‘THREE is a magic number’. Or so a multitude of musicians, from Yorkshire band Embrace through to hip hop trio De La Soul, have claimed down the years when covering a song originally penned as an educational tool for a Seventies children’s TV programme.

Bob Dorough, the song’s writer, is a jazz pianist from Arkansas, USA, and, therefore, unlikely to have much interest in the England football team. Which, considering the sentiment of his most recognised work, surely comes as no surprise with any Three Lions devotee being all too aware that a year ending in a three has a distinct possibility of being a chastening one for the national team.

World Cup exits in 1973 and 1993 are as painful now as they were at the time. So, too, the European Championship qualifying campaign sandwiched in between those two ignominious exits that ended in defeat to Denmark at Wembley and manager Bobby Robson being showered in spit, lager and even worse from angry supporters as he walked down the tunnel at the old stadium.

The tale of woe does not end there, either, with perhaps the biggest wake-up call delivered to English football having come almost exactly 60 years ago.

In triumphing 6-3 at Wembley on November 5, 1953, Hungary not only became the first overseas opponents to beat England on home soil.

They also changed the face of football in this country for ever as the home side’s 2-3-5 formation was shown to be as outdated as a pocket watch and monocle.

England could not get near the visitors that infamous afternoon, as legendary football writer Geoffrey Green neatly summarised the following day in The Times when writing: “Billy Wright rushed into that tackle like a man racing to the wrong fire.”

Thankfully, in trying to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil, the current crop of England footballers will not have to face anything like the quality that proved their forefathers’ undoing in 1953. Or, even in 1993 when Holland condemned Graham Taylor’s squad to an ignominious exit.

That said, though, there is a sense that the Three Lions will have a few footballing fires of their own to put out both in tonight’s Wembley encounter with Montenegro and then the final qualifier on Tuesday at home to Poland.

The task is simple. Two wins and England are on the plane to Brazil; anything less, however, and suddenly things become very worrying with three teams vying to overtake Roy Hodgson’s men.

Ukraine, a point behind in second place, seem the biggest threat. They host Poland tonight and then finish with a fixture that gives the lie to the notion there really are no easy fixtures at this level – a trip to San Marino.

An England win tonight and a draw in Kharkiv would leave just a draw being required from Tuesday’s meeting with the Poles at Wembley. Should both England and Ukraine win, though, then three points will be the minimum requirement on Tuesday if a place in the play-offs is to be avoided.

The odds are still in England’s favour, not least because Montenegro will be without their talisman Mirko Vucinic at Wembley. First-choice goalkeeper Mladen Bzovic is also out. Ukraine, meanwhile, will not have the benefit of their usual partisan home crowd tonight due to the game being played behind closed doors following racist behaviour by supporters at a previous qualifier.

Even so, there is more than a degree of anxiety around as England look to prove that a year that ends in three does not necessarily have to bring recrimination and regret to the nation’s footballing fortunes.

One man adamant that what has gone before will have no impact on the forthcoming double-header is manager Hodgson. “I am not superstitious,” said the 66-year-old when asked yesterday about England’s failures between 1953 and 1993.

“My wife is the numbers person. She is quite good on numbers. But, no, I don’t share those superstitions.”

Hodgson’s task is to avoid joining the likes of Sir Alf Ramsey, Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor in being left to bemoan a failure to qualify and, on that score, he remains optimistic.

“We have never discussed not qualifying within the camp,” said the current England manager yesterday.

“We are convinced that we are a good team, we are convinced that we are good enough to qualify and with two home games to come we are convinced that we will do the job.

“Words like fear or anxiety or concern haven’t really crossed our minds or certainly haven’t crossed our lips and I have been very impressed by the quality of training.

“I know that we need to deliver, I know we will deliver and I am convinced you will see a very, very good England team (tonight).

“There will be lots of good teams that won’t get to Brazil next year but I am convinced it won’t be us.”

Hodgson’s challenge now, of course, is to emulate Sven Goran Eriksson’s side of a decade ago.

Back then, they emerged from a daunting trip to Istanbul with a precious point and a place at Euro 2004.

The Three Lions may well need a similar sense of resolve over the coming five days if three is, once again, to be a magic number.