Boss Roy Hodgson rewarded for bold Andros Townsend gamble.
As Andros Townsend wheeled away in celebration of the goal that kept England on course for the World Cup, Roy Hodgson let it all hang out for the second time on a transformative night at Wembley.
With his country’s World Cup fate in the balance, England manager Hodgson, so often derided for ultra-conservative tactics and buttoned-up public persona, sprang a major surprise when he handed Tottenham winger Townsend his debut in Friday’s crucial qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley.
It was a significant and, some would have you believe, out of character gamble on a night when England couldn’t afford to slip up in the race for automatic qualification for next year’s finals in Brazil.
To Hodgson’s obvious delight, it paid off in spectacular fashion as Townsend made England’s opening goal and then scored the decisive third in a 4-1 win that left them needing one more victory against Poland on Tuesday to be guaranteed first place in Group H.
Hodgson rarely indulges in the kind of extravagant touchline celebrations enjoyed by the likes of Jose Mourinho, but Townsend’s superb strike prompted him to leap from his seat and scream “you beauty” with an expletive thrown into the mix for good measure.
It was that kind of night as Hodgson and England cast off their image as a dour pragmatists.
With Arsenal forward Theo Walcott sidelined due to injury, most pundits had expected Hodgson to start with the more steady but less exciting James Milner on the right flank, or deploy a three-man midfield featuring Jack Wilshere.
But Hodgson had struck an unusually upbeat tone at his pre-match press conference, proclaiming it was “unthinkable” that England would miss out on the World Cup, and he remained in seize-the-day mode by selecting Townsend in what was effectively an attacking 4-2-4 formation.
Hodgson hoped Townsend’s pace and energy would provide an antidote to the nervousness that often afflicts England at Wembley and he was proved right.
Faced with obdurate opposition sitting deep in their half could have blunted Townsend’s threat.
But from the moment he showed sublime control to take down a difficult pass on his instep in the early stages, it quickly became clear that the debutant wouldn’t suffer from stage-fright.
Townsend was proving such a threat that Montenegro resorted to using two players in a bid to mark him out of the game.
It worked for a short period but such before half-time he sparked back into life to create England’s best opportunity of the opening period.
He raced forward to drive in a shot that Vukasin Poleksic spilled in to the path of Wayne Rooney, only for the Manchester United striker to fire into the side-netting.
With news of second placed Ukraine’s victory over Poland filtering through at half-time, the pressure increased on England to finally breakdown the visitors and it was Townsend who rose to the challenge.
Just four minutes into the second half, Townsend took possession out on the right wing and left his marker for dead with a burst of blistering pace before whipping over a low cross.
Montenegro’s defence had been completely unhinged and Rooney was on hand to fire home the rebound after Poleksic could only parry Danny Welbeck’s strike.
Branco Boskovic’s own goal put England 2-0 ahead in the 62nd minute, but nerves were jangling again when Dejan Damjanovic got one back 10 minutes later.
A Montenegro equaliser would drop England to second place and likely leave them facing a play-off.
But Townsend ended any fear of any England let-down in the 78th minute when he wriggled past Simon Vukcevic and unleashed a powerful shot that swerved past Poleksic and in off a post.
With the road to Rio now looking a lot less fraught, Hodgson reverted to type for the first time all night as he greeted Townsend with a no-frills handshake after substituting his match-winner with Wembley rising to acclaim their new hero.