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Friday marked exactly a month since England’s instantly forgettable 0-0 draw with Ukraine that generated frustration and confusion, as well as a point which manager Roy Hodgson seemed pleased to get regardless of the dull performance that was served up.
It was another draw against one of the better opponents in qualifying group H, the only wins coming against whipping-boys Moldova and San Marino, cultivating the view that Hodgson was too much of a pragmatist, opting to play it safe too often in search of a point instead of all three.
The limp display in Kiev was designed by Hodgson in order to set England up for the perfectly doable task of winning the final two qualifiers, both at home, against Montenegro and Poland. It was the tie with the former that marked an exact month since the game with Ukraine and, possibly galvanised by the criticism from Gary Lineker in the aftermath of Kiev, Hodgson approached it a different animal.
With Theo Walcott out, Hodgson was shorn of his hypersonic right-sided winger and the alternatives were James Milner, as the former Liverpool coach hinted towards in the build-up, or an uncapped 22 year old in Andros Townsend. As news filtered through a couple of hours before kick-off that Hodgson had released his inhibitions and gone for the latter, it was met with vast surprise.
A vital qualifier that England dared not lose, being started by an untested youngster was the most un-Hodgson move the 66 year old could make. Instead of resting on the pillow of safety-first, Hodgson tossed caution to the wind and unleashed Townsend on the right of a side that contained three strikers, negativity wasn’t on the agenda. The manager, in just a month, had seemingly evolved.
With a degree of irony, the side for which Hodgson will receive credit for his gamble was the most sensible eleven. Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney partnered each other in attack with thirteen goals between them so far this season at club-level, whilst Danny Welbeck is in good form for Manchester United.
Townsend may have been a débutante, but he was an effective like-for-like jet-heeled switch with Walcott, plus the Spurs midfielder was coming off the back of 8 starts for his club in this campaign. This wasn’t a crazy left-field experiment, but a calculated risk on an in-form player who, after a series of loan spells, is finally establishing himself in the Premier League.
Perhaps the only major gamble came with the omission of Jack Wilshere who has, when fit, been a staple of Hodgson’s England teams. Frank Lampard was partnered with Steven Gerrard in midfield to offer an experienced base to the attack-minded front-line, as well as, possibly, to add even more attacking intent.
Leighton Baines, filling in for the injured Ashley Cole, had a superb night at left-back, offering another attacking dimension as he persistently bombed up and down the left-flank, allowing Welbeck to explore the inner-channels.
The home-side were positive from the off, boldly probing the Montenegro goal with, apart from a few short periods, constant pressure. Townsend, a constant menace on the right, had a shot which rebounded for Rooney to hit the post, Welbeck and Gerrard were both denied by Vukasin Poleksic before, in the 48th minute, Welbeck was again repelled by the goalkeeper and Rooney was on hand to finally break visiting resistance. Townsend must take great credit for the opener, picking out Welbeck after a long, surging run down the right.
On the touchline, Hodgson punched the air in delight and relief as his side broke the tension created by far-away news of Ukraine’s 1-0 victory over Poland. A draw here would not have sufficed and the manager saw vindication for the positivity he had been promoting all week, his team refusing to hide behind a goal lead and continuing to press, breaching Poleksic’s goal 14 minutes later as Branko Boskovic turned Welbeck’s cross into his own net.
Until that point England were swarming over Montenegro, thrusting forwards in waves of white shirts and it was refreshing to see Hodgson’s men play with such abandon. The second however seemed to wake the away side up, Stevan Jovetic cracking Joe Hart’s cross-bar with a long-range drive before Dejan Damjanovic halved the deficit after a rare Montenegrin foray into England’s half.
If Wembley became a little edgy and tetchy at Damjanovic’s goal, fearing a dramatic capitulation, those nerves were allayed by Townsend who seized his moment seven minutes later. Picking up the ball 30 yards from goal, he scuttled forwards conscious of the run of Daniel Sturridge to the right of him only to ignore him completely, instead thrashing a low shot past Poleksic courtesy of the post.
In an instant, Townsend had become the embodiment of Hodgson’s new-found endorsement of freedom and exuberance, taking advantage of the licence to act on impulse and the buzz created by his overspilling confidence. As the Spurs winger slid on his knees on the Wembley turf, Hodgson would be forgiven to raising a finger or two to the likes of Lineker who had previously been vociferous in their criticism of Hodgson’s penchant for the utilitarian.
There was still time for Sturridge to round the win off with a penalty, but the night well and truly belonged to Townsend. A willing runner throughout, direct, nimble and bristling with imagination and desire, it would be no surprise if his marker, Milan Jovanovic, was still being untangled as he left Wembley, thankful that his night of torture would only last 90 minutes.
It was the birth of what promises to be a very bright international career, a spawn of neo-Hodgson, the manager immediately turning his focus to Tuesday night and Poland with adventure and a liberal approach now running through his veins.
As this week the FA troubled itself with the situation of Adnan Januzaj’s possible future eligibility, it was a 22 year old Spurs winger who took it upon himself to annul all debate. He is not needed, not with Andros Townsend ready to take flight.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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