It wasn’t always pretty, but Roy Hodgson got there in the end. Sat in Wembley’s cavernous press room, he stared up at his inquisitors with the weary eyes of a man who has just completed a fun run that wasn’t very much fun at all.
On this run, there had been rain. There had been wind. There was a blister the size of an olive on his big toe and his right nipple was bleeding.
"I’m delighted," he said in a voice that suggested that outbreaks of visible delight would have to wait until he’d had some sleep. "It means an awful lot."
Hodgson said that he had, "died a thousand deaths," at Wembley and every single one of them appeared to have taken its toll. Whatever your feelings towards him, it’s hard not to feel sympathy to a man who has spent months teetering on a high wire, knowing that one slip will send him plunging into the swirling, screaming vortex of high profile humiliation that claimed Steve McClaren and Kevin Keegan before him.
Imagine knowing that your life, your legacy, your state of mind, is all dependent on Joe Hart’s ability to stay focused. Imagine that stress. In some ways, it’s astonishing that Hodgson didn’t turn up for the press conference in his underwear, swigging from a bottle of cough medicine and shouting at imaginary spiders.
Hodgson was the choice of only a few when Fabio Capello left in 2012. Specifically, Mrs Hodgson and crucially, the Football Association. Everyone else wanted either Harry Redknapp, a continental big name, or they simply evaded the question, closed their eyes and prayed that the spirit of Sir Alf Ramsey would regenerate within a willing host and make itself known.
He relied on his instincts at Euro 2012, boarding up the windows like a Florida shopkeeper who’s just seen quite the storm front on the horizon. Huddled behind his trusted banks of four, he sat under the kitchen table and listened to the howl of superior teams dashing themselves against his fortifications. He left the tournament in the knock-out stages with his head held high, but knowing that he had an awful lot of mess to clear up.
He entered the qualifying campaign with a new tactic, a 4-2-3-1 variant that varied between the stubbornly obtuse and the toothlessly vague. Only Moldova and San Marino were cowed by this brave new world. Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro stood firm and unblinking in the face of all that Steven Gerrard and his colleagues could throw at them. It was grim stuff and the attacks on Hodgson mounted.
Liverpool supporters were not remotely surprised at this turn of events. They remember well the suffocating malaise he brought to Anfield in his short spell with their club. At Liverpool, Hodgson bought bad players, played bad football and did bad things like a bad wool. It wasn’t just the results, it was the attitude. The refusal to exchange verbal blows with Sir Alex Ferguson, the refusal to stand up to the owners, the refusal to understand why the fans were unhappy.
And yet, he deserves credit this morning. He won’t get it from some quarters, but he deserves it nonetheless. Though he became increasingly prickly towards the end, he kept his head. He realised that England supporters would find it easier to get behind a team that attacked at pace and, by thunder, this lot were so reckless at times that they made Keegan’s Euro 2000 team look positively Italian.
There are those who have pointed to the quality of the group as a reason to belittle Hodgson, but that’s hardly his fault. And while this pool lacked a real powerhouse, as groups tend to when you’re the top seed, there were three nations more than capable of causing problems. To finish in first place, unbeaten, with only four goals conceded is something worthy of praise, regardless of past failings.
England do not go to the World Cup as favourites, or even as dark horses. But they do go to the World Cup. That in itself is a reason to be cheerful. Though in this case, it’s probably best if we let Hodgson take a few days off before we expect a passable somersault of glee.
Check out our World Cup 2014 odds here.
Read more from Iain Macintosh.
Read 5 Things to expect now England have qualified.