Beware travel sickness! Hodgson must avoid slip-ups on the road – now that Wembley is no longer a fortress
22:12 GMT, 15 October 2012
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There was a time when a draw in Poland was a good result. That was the mistake Graham Taylor made all those years ago. His team played poorly in Katowice, sneaked a point, and he dismissed them in public as headless chickens. The players took umbrage, went to Norway and lost, and began an inexorable slide out of the 1994 World Cup.
In the aftermath it was widely agreed that Taylor made a hash of the trip to Poland. Criticise the players behind closed doors, yes, but accept that a 1-1 draw is still a decent result and be diplomatic beyond those confines.
Times have changed. On the surface, a draw in Warsaw is good news. Poland are a young, improving team, playing in front of a noisy, full house. Many teams would settle for a draw in Poland. Germany and Portugal did in friendly matches here last season; Argentina lost in June 2011.
Big night ahead: England manager Roy Hodgson (left) and striker Wayne Rooney (right) in training in Warsaw
Yet, for England manager Roy Hodgson, the problem is this: England can no longer be guaranteed to win at home. Away draws only have worth if accompanied by home victories in the corresponding fixture, and nobody talks of fortress Wembley any more.
In May 1993, it was anticipated that a point in Katowice would soon be accompanied by three more at Wembley in September and so it proved, with a 3-0 win.
Yet England have already dropped two points at home to Ukraine in this campaign and while the 3-2 reverse against Croatia in 2007 is the only qualifying defeat in 12 years, there are an increasing number of draws and a worrying air of uncertainty.
Few would bet with any confidence against further slip-ups in this group. England’s final two matches are at home to Montenegro — who closed ranks and drew 0-0 on their last visit to Wembley, in the time of Fabio Capello — and Poland, a year from now.
Banana skin: The Poland squad warm up at the National Stadium in Warsaw on Monday night
If six points are required to avoid a
play-off or, worse, the exit, these could prove very tense affairs,
given England’s variable home form.
At the National Stadium in Warsaw, Hodgson attempted to make sense of a match some see as the most critical of his 11 in charge. If the European Championship tournament was blessed with low expectation — giving it a slightly unreal air — Hodgson has now had enough time to be handed responsibility for any failure.
Lose in Poland and there will be few excuses, even if the international retirement of John Terry is a greater blow than his many detractors would have us believe.
Hodgson said that the idea of a ‘must-win’ match was a football cliche that left him cold. He has been around the block plenty of times and, after his unofficial meet and greet on the London Underground, was not about to let another slip of the tongue cause him more problems than the opposition ever could.
Hart at work: England goalkeeper Joe is put through his paces in the Polish capital
There is no result that could
eliminate England in Poland, Hodgson made clear. He knows how quickly
the balance of power changes in group football.
Ukraine drew 1-1 at Wembley and no
doubt felt that the advantage was with them; then they drew 0-0 last
Friday away in Moldova, where England won 5-0 last month. Back to
Yet Hodgson was equally aware what a fillip a victory in Warsaw would be. ‘It reduces the pressure enormously if you can get a result away from home,’ he said, ‘and those victories are not as difficult to achieve as they once were.
Road to Brazil: England have already dropped points at home to Ukraine and cannot afford to let more slip
‘Games are more open, with teams
having to come at you and leaving themselves vulnerable. At Wembley,
teams hope they can catch us on the counter-attack if we open ourselves
up too much. Look at the number of away wins in the Premier League in
recent seasons as well. That did not used to happen, but football is
‘And I know the
statistics, we did draw against Montenegro, we did lose to Croatia and
draw with Ukraine, but I still think the record at Wembley is pretty
good. We can remain confident of playing at home.’
That is not always how Capello saw
it. He thought England suffered an inferiority complex, particularly at
Wembley and came to the conclusion very early in his tenure that he
preferred away games.
Hodgson has only played two
competitive matches in London, a joke fixture against San Marino, and
the more stringent examination presented by Ukraine, which England
failed. The manager is beginning to experience the fragility that can
strike English players at any time.
Capello’s team sailed towards South
Africa in 2010 as one of the strongest European contenders, only to be
affected by torpor once there. England battled their way out of a
difficult group in Ukraine this summer, only to freeze against Italy in
what happened to the Sven Goran Eriksson team that beat Germany 5-1 in
Munich They were stumbling and on the plane home from the World Cup in
2002 long before Germany reached the final.
‘The one thing we know is that, in Warsaw, we will face a very highly motivated team with a very vocal and enthusiastic support, because we are a scalp,’ Hodgson said. ‘England have always been a scalp.
‘We watched games about San Marino and, in those matches, their performance was nothing like it was at Wembley. They gave a bit to the game, rather than just being ultra-defensive. Their respect was a flattering aspect, seeing them simply trying to keep the score down.
‘So we know that Poland will be
rubbing their hands with glee at this game, given that, if they win,
it’s such a feather in their cap. First, we have to make sure we’re not
To this end, Hodgson is leaning towards experience rather than the cavalier approach: Michael Carrick not Tom Cleverley, Jermain Defoe not Danny Welbeck.
Away wins may be easier to come by in international football these days, but Hodgson’s tendency to caution suggests he will attempt to snaffle one, rather than enter the refurbished National Stadium with guns blazing. That is his prerogative. What he cannot afford to do, however, is allow conservative leanings to result in a missed opportunity.
This is a Poland team without captain Jakub Blaszczykowski and ranked 54th in the world, marginally higher than the Bulgarians who England beat home and away en route to the 2012 European Championship. No England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey in 1973 has lost in Poland, either.
‘Historical moments don’t really interest me,’ said Hodgson. ‘I don’t dismiss history, knowledge of it gives you some perspective: but it doesn’t help you win a football match.’
He must hope he locates what does in Warsaw; otherwise the road could get rather dicey from here. Even that familiar road home.