A long slog concluded in rather electrifying style: this is a campaign that has elicited a range of emotions, but the upshot is that Roy Hodgson has taken England to the World Cup finals in Brazil. A record of four goals conceded and 31 scored in 10 unbeaten games are the vastly impressive statistics that underlie this success, yet only with two minutes of the entire campaign remaining did England look in total and absolute control of their own destiny. It is a curious dichotomy.
The new Wembley has seen triumph and despair for England managers past, but this was Hodgson's moment to enjoy the former. Even as Poland's huge away contingent crackled with noise, helping to generate one of the best atmospheres seen in this gargantuan stadium, it was English voices which finished the night singing the praises of their players and the manager. It has not always been thus.
For only 45 minutes prior to this final match had England looked blessed with any real assurance during the qualifying campaign. Discarding heavy wins against the non-entities of San Marino and Moldova, only in the second half at Wembley on Friday against Montenegro, and the final two minutes here, did England have a lead of more than one goal against one of Group H's significant teams. This was not a difficult group by any means, but England made hard work of it, despite a final flourish.
Even after Wayne Rooney's fine header from Leighton Baines's gorgeous cross capped a sustained period of English dominance in the first half, the home side never looked entirely comfortable: an attacking 4-2-3-1-cum-4-2-4 formation always looked vulnerable to a counter. As Hodgson said: “I died a thousand deaths every time they crossed the half-way line.” But when Steven Gerrard embarked on a surging run and dinked the ball past Wojciech Szczesny, England could finally let their minds drift to a summer to be spent in Brazil.
England's supporters had found this a hard team to love, but right at the death Hodgson has conjured up a team worth admiring. Andros Townsend was once again impressive on the right wing, especially in a first half when he rattled the bar with a thunderous effort, while in the introduction of Michael Carrick for Frank Lampard, he found a nice blend in midfield. This partnership must be persisted with, despite the rather bizarre decision to bring Carrick off too early in the second half.
These two final qualifiers have been a tactical triumph for Hodgson, with England playing with flair and confidence. Still, he played down suggestions of an important or significant strategic shift: “Our strategy has not changed a great deal since the Euros frankly, but some days it works better than others.”
This was one of the former. In a stadium that has witnessed its fair share of soporific occasions, Wembley had an international match to savour – as much for the noise coming from the Poland fans as the attacking verve on display on the pitch. England have finished this campaign in real style. For their manager, perhaps a flavour of vindication will be tasted.
Because there has always been a sense that throughout his career, Hodgson has been under-estimated in England. Upon taking charge of Fulham in 2007 – his first senior role in his home country for a decade - he was asked at a press conference whether this was the biggest job he had taken. Hodgson responded by reminding his forgetful inquisitor that he had managed Inter, winners of 18 Serie A titles and three European Cups. It is a thread that has run through his career.
This week, ahead of a decidedly dicey final qualifier against Poland, he had to prompt the media again. Asked to explain whether briefly assisting Glenn Hoddle for England's qualifying success in Rome in 1997 gave him a taste of the extreme pressure of international management, he had to again remind the press: “I was at Inter at the time.”
For much of his career, Hodgson – from a parochial English perspective at least – has been working in the shadows, making his reputation away from these shores as he sought enrichment abroad. The fact his achievements have been overlooked as a result has nagged away at this bookish, owlish individual.
As he once said, with, it must be said, a slight over-reach: "Of course, my track record, if people bothered to study it, would put me in the same category as [Sir Alex] Ferguson enjoys today, but people don't talk about what I've done outside England."
Hodgson feels he has been denied validation in his home country. But a career for which the word peripatetic barely does justice is having a very Anglicised pronunciation at its conclusion. Fulham, Liverpool, West Brom and now this, the national team at a World Cup finals.
So, Brazil awaits – and it is hard to envisage a grander stage. Mind you, Hodgson has been here before. The last time England failed to qualify for the finals – 1994 in the USA – he was managing Switzerland. Twenty years on, he has now earned himself the chance to leave as much of an impression on his home country as he has in many other football nations.
“It will (top the lot),” he admitted in Wembley's press conference room. “The only reason I’m cautious is denigrating other achievements. I don't want people in Switzerland to think I’m downplaying that (reaching the World Cup in 1994). But I'm English and you can't get away from the fact that for an Englishman, it means more when you can do it with your own team.”
It hasn't always been pretty, but in one sense a nervy 90 minutes against Poland represented the culmination of nearly 40 years in management for Hodgson. Now, his biggest challenge awaits him.