England finish with a flourish after providing expected share of tension

INSTEAD of spending Monday 
afternoon in Zurich, a city he knows well, Roy Hodgson can instead put his feet up and let his mind wander to next summer’s sunshine trip to Brazil.

England's Wayne Rooney celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup Group H qualification soccer match between England and Poland at Wembley stadium in London, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Winter may still be a short while off, but the former Swiss national manager and current England chief would have been chilled to the bone had he been required to attend an appointment in Switzerland’s largest city on October 21. Safety net or not, the play-offs were the last thing England wanted.

Zurich, the home of FIFA, will stage the play-off draw for the eight best runners-up in the UEFA zone, with the four winners over two-legged ties progressing to next summer’s World Cup finals.

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It is a draw England are glad not to be a part of, happy to leave it to the likes of Sweden, Portugal and Croatia to fight it out after the Three Lions booked their automatic passage to Brazil at the expense of old foes Poland on a pulsating and tense London evening.

England's Wayne Rooney celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup Group H qualification soccer match between England and Poland at Wembley stadium in London, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

No incessant rain or invective like on that infamous night of November 21, 2007 when England stepped out at Wembley seeking to take care of business and qualify for Euro 2008. And failed.

The one surviving member last night from the hosts’ starting line-up on that dreadful evening which cooked Steve McClaren’s goose was captain Steven Gerrard.

How sweet must last night have tasted for Gerrard on the occasion of his 107th cap, which he crowned with his 21st and most significant goal for his country to ease the nerves of a nation late on.

Just under six years ago when England needed just to draw to make it through to finals, the Croats spoiled the party after racing into a 2-0 lead inside 14 minutes en route to a 3-2 triumph, a wretched memory that the proud Liverpudlian has said he will take to his grave.

No goals arrived early on this time around, despite a startlingly open first quarter which was far removed from many of the dismal spectacles that had pockmarked the majority of England’s nine previous qualifying matches.

Chances came at both ends, with the much-lauded Robert Lewandowski, billed as Poland’s Plan A, B and C, spurning the sort of chance he gobbles up in his sleep for Borussia Dortmund, much to the angst of the massive 18,000 visiting contingent.

For England, the attacking intent that bloodied the noses of the Montenegrins in the second half on Friday evening extended into another round with headline act Andros Townsend smashing the woodwork with an effort that would surely even have beaten Poland’s watching hero of 1973 in Jan Tomaszewski in his prime.

Crosses, chances, last-gasp clearances and pressure from the home side that resembled a siege at times on the night inevitably drew comparisons with that breathless and fateful evening of October 17, 1973 when the Poles stunned world football by drawing 1-1 to deny Sir Alf Ramsey’s side a place in the World Cup 
finals in West Germany.

Thankfully, Wayne Rooney settled the nerves and England were on their way, providing a final flourish in a qualification programme that was solid as opposed to spectacular.

Back in July 2011, following the draw, the path to Brazil did not look treacherous.

But really, we should have known better and anticipated some bumps in the road.

That is the English way, after all.

While many were grateful for the near-miss which almost saw England, the penultimate country to be picked out in the World Cup 2014 UEFA qualification draw, placed in Group H rather than Group I – which would have meant that they would have had to finish above France to win their pool – a sage note of caution arrived amid the sighs of relief at avoiding another ‘big hitter.’

From Fabio Capello, no less, the man in situ at the draw as England manager, but destined to move on before the start of qualification.

The Italian’s limited command of the English language was well documented during his time with the Three Lions.

Yet his post-draw statement that England “need to be careful” proved a prescient one that should not have got lost in translation.

England had two nerve-shredding appointments with Ukraine, some would just call them plain grim, which did little for the blood pressure or sense of ease.

Hodgson’s prosaic qualification process also featured low-octane nights in Warsaw and Podgorica when his side lost their way in the fashion of confused foreign tourists in stumbling draws against Poland and Montenegro.

That quartet of results poured a reservoir of fuel onto the fire of those who suggest that English international football is mired in the dark ages.

But the classic national traits of diligence, organisation and obstinacy in the face of adversity at least served the country well on occasion. Especially in Kiev last month, when the dogged defending bordered on the heroic at times.

Hodgson would point to qualification being a means to an end, as well as an unbeaten run of nine group matches heading into last night’s encounter with the Poles.

Qualification for major tournaments hinging on a final group fixture was nothing new, with England’s fate decided in nine of their previous 12 qualifying campaigns in their last pool game.

Just another day at the office. And, thankfully, the business England can now attend to is the real tournament stuff.