It all turned out right in the end, just as Roy Hodgson said it would writes Martin Swain.
Saving their best until last, England polished off the final item of business in their World Cup qualifying group last night with a much-deserved 2-0 defeat of Poland which sends them to the finals in Brazil next summer.
It was a performance of some style, too, following up on the 4-1 victory over Montenegro five days earlier – all of which made the anxieties and tensions of this climactic episode on the road to Rio seem like so much paranoia.
England were good, at times very good, and only in their finishing did they come up short on the demands of the occasion. But goals from the two stand-out players of this campaign, Wayne Rooney and finally, fittingly, the best captain of this modern era, Steven Gerrard, drove them over the finishing line.
At times – and despite all that talk about 1973 having no bearing on this re-heat of one of England’s most jarring nights – the ghosts of 40 years past seemed to be hovering around Poland’s goal-line as England fluffed their openings and Wojciech Szczesny took on the role of his legendary forerunner, Jan Tomaszweski.
But at the end, not only were England planning for Brazil but the unfairly maligned Hodgson had threaded together a blend of players who might just be better than also-rans.
Of course, England aren’t going to win the tournament next summer. But, equally, the growing excitement in their football generated by the impacts of Andros Townsend – superb again – and Daniel Sturridge, the continuing mix of toil and craft from Danny Welbeck and the input yet to come from figures such as Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley brighten significantly the gloomy post-Euro 2012 autopsy.
This will be immensely satisfying to Hodgson – and for all those who grew not only to like the man but admire his work at Albion, there is the hope that a decent chap and excellent coach will now get a measure of credit.
“We flew to London as an ugly duckling and returned a beautiful swan,” was how Tomaszweski had described Poland’s landmark 1973 effort.
England have not suddenly become a beautiful swan during this qualifying tournament, but they certainly began as an ugly duckling in comparison to the celebrity-flush plumage of the generation of players who flattered to deceive throughout the Noughties.
It would be a churlish man or a Harry Redknapp devotee who would argue against Hodgson’s recent assertion that England are “getting better, improving all the time” under his stable and organised leadership.
They have not thrilled the blood before this final five days of action and have come in for criticism for performances deemed underwhelming, notably in being held at home by Ukraine and also out in Poland and Montenegro.
But while they were showings that did not convey great excitement, they were the signatures of Hodgson at work, seeking efficiency before thrills and organising a defence built to see the team through tough nights on hostile foreign soil.
It is how Hodgson operates and always prepares – not a minute of any hour of any session is wasted. The England manager does not do frivolous five-a-side knockabouts just to stop the players moaning.
It didn’t enthral the galleries or the press and led to some lop-sided criticism – he’s the manager of England, so of course it did – and scant praise for the safe passage, most obviously with the reaction to last month’s vital goalless draw in Kiev against Ukraine, achieved with one fit and eligible forward in Rickie Lambert, two games into his international career.
That was a night which summed up the trials and tribulations of his position. Incredibly, despite the high stakes and intimidating setting, he came home to find Gary Lineker moaning about England’s passing and critics demanding to know why Hodgson’s team hadn’t produced a greater goal threat.
Although there is not a lot a man of his years will not have experienced, he will still be much the wiser for the past 18 months. He will know that the trailing media is still awash with Redknappites for whom Hodgson is a sombre schoolmaster to the wise-cracking freewheeler.
But this media is stuck with him now, at least until after Brazil, and it is a position he has earned.
What Hodgson and England have proved in taking these final steps towards Brazil is that they are not half as limited as many imagined when he picked up the threads of the job just before the last Euros – and they might yet get a good deal better. They will certainly improve for having come through this test because, while England would eventually disassemble the Polish defence almost at will, this was a difficult occasion for Hodgson’s emerging team to handle in an unusual atmosphere.
The pre-match promise of a Wembley flooded by a 20,000-plus strong visiting army proved well-founded, the Poles sneaking their flares through security and making a huge din throughout.
But it may have proved to have been just as effective a trigger to the home side because England and their own supporters responded. Suddenly, animated home fans were watching Rooney and Gerrard orchestrate England’s most concerted display of attacking football in the campaign.
And, as it turned out, Poland’s bark was worse than their bite. On two occasions in the first half, they crafted opportunities on the counter-attack but the accomplished Robert Lewandowski could take advantage of neither.
Hodgson will want to examine his team’s propensity to leave the back door swinging on the hinges because it was there against Montenegro too; in between times he will be thankful the Borussia Dortmund forward shot tamely at Joe Hart and then placed an even better-crafted opening wide as England lay spread-eagled.
But on the balance of play and opportunities, all of this should have been an irrelevance. From the moment Townsend got his team going by racing past Grzegorz Wojtkowiak as if the Polish left-back was wading through water, England racked up chance after chance.
There has been much talk about just how good the Spurs winger’s debut was against Montenegro. But he must now be a contender to have put together the best opening two games by an England newcomer, because once more he played with a freedom and effectiveness that made international football appear ridiculously easy.
At the height of the first-half assault he slammed a typically bold left-foot cracker from 25 yards which crashed against the bar – Welbeck just failing to finish the rebound with a header under pressure – and unhinged and unsettled the Poles with every touch. Surely Townsend can’t go on like this, can he? All England will hope so.
Welbeck’s massive workrate will always make him a manager’s favourite. He has tricks and guile, too, but this was a night when in front of goal it seemed someone had tied his laces together.
One wild swipe wide from point-blank range brought older fans their first attack of the ’73 wobbles and, with Sturridge also struggling to get the ball from under his feet when Poland were at England’s mercy, it was to major relief that the first goal finally arrived four minutes from the interval.
There was no surprise, however, in the identity of architect and engineer. Leighton Baines really has come into his own as an England left-back in these two internationals and possibly enjoyed his finest 90 minutes to date here, the high point of which was the last of a testing series of first-half crosses which found the head of the accomplished goalscorer on whom Hodgson can rely. England goal No.37 for Mr Rooney was a downwards header.
Poland were more adventurous after the break to raise the tension levels but again Lewandowski disappointed his ardent following. Gary Cahill had to make one vital block to deny substitute Mateusz Klich, but more significantly Hart will be much relieved to have come out on the right side of a one-on-one with the feared Dortmund striker on the hour.
It would be Poland’s last great chance. They were kept in the contest by English profligacy in front of goal as Townsend and Sturridge and Rooney and Gerrard sliced away at their cover and set up openings that were either squandered or repelled by the visitors’ Arsenal goalkeeper.
In the game’s decisive, final act, however, Wembley and the nation had the opportunity to acclaim the emergence of a leader of the very finest traditions. Gerrard – less pampered then Beckham, less divisive than Terry and a better player than both – is a captain who in the next year can do much to unite his country in this age of club tribalism.
When he accepted an astute touch by James Milner to power through in the 88th minute, his deft, stabbed finish was rich with symbolism and met with euphoria.
In Europe, this is the era of the majestic Spanish and the mighty Germans. With a World Cup staged in South America, Brazil and Argentina will be strong.
England remain adrift of such company as the FA launches another survey to try to improve the flow of talent from such a huge natural resource. Hodgson’s job is to give us as much in the way of a pleasing distraction as he can with the tools at his disposal. By the final whistle last night, he looked to be making a pretty good fist of it.