ENGLAND saw a clean sheets record sullied in stoppage time in Warsaw on Wednesday night.
But they will surely overhaul the 11 shutouts they achieved in 1966 — and they will surely still gain automatic qualification for Qatar 2022, despite Damian Szymanski’s late leveller.
And it is no coincidence that England have discovered defensive solidity with the re-emergence of John Stones as an international force.
Gareth Southgate admitted he feared he had ‘lost’ the Manchester City centre-back last season, as he disappeared from Pep Guardiola’s first-choice line-up having suffered a prolonged personal and professional crisis.
He has always seen Stones and fellow Yorkshireman Harry Maguire as his two world-class central defenders — and since they have been reunited, England have looked a far safer proposition.
In his early days, Stones was seen as very much the elegant, ball-playing type and, of course, he still has those attributes.
But on Wednesday night, Stones proved himself as he bore the brunt of the threat from Robert Lewandowski, kept going after a first-half injury threatened to see him substituted, and produced a display of silk and steel as England went close to another impressive victory.
Early in his England comeback, Stones had been responsible for a Polish equaliser at Wembley in March, but he showed resilience to provide the assist for Maguire’s winner that night and has gone from strength to strength since.
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That England failed to notch a sixth straight win in their qualifying group will certainly avoid any notions that Southgate’s men are the finished product.
Yet the point they achieved in Warsaw means they are certain to qualify unless they fail to defeat either Andorra, Albania or San Marino — and that seems unthinkable.
Many times in the past English pre-tournament optimism has been a load of tub-thumping, empty-headed hot air.
So often we have been obsessed with the celebrity of one or two Hollywood players.
Next year, though, English expectation will be more realistic and level-headed.
Southgate’s England are a proper, serious team, genuinely respected by the heavyweights of world football and, more importantly, with the self-belief and the work ethic of potential champions.
Plenty could go wrong in the next 14 months, of course, but England will arrive in the Middle East with experience of back-to-back tournament campaigns which went down to the wire.
For so long last night, England showcased their key qualities — concentration, patience, buckets of perspiration, then a sudden burst of inspiration.
It would have been easy for the players to allow their standards to slip so soon after the extreme emotions of the Euros, the euphoric run to the final and the agonising nature of their penalty shootout defeat by Italy.
But there has been little of that. This was a proper old-fashioned scrap and England were up to it.
Southgate’s men had been cruising through a low-key campaign, straddling the Euros finals, which was being carried out in impressive fuss-free fashion until they were finally unlocked in the 92nd minute.
Their last two games away from Wembley both ended in 4-0 maulings of decent opposition — Ukraine in the Euros quarter-final in Rome and Hungary in Budapest last week.
But this was a stiffer test, certainly their most difficult task on the road to the Middle East, with not just the presence of a world-class striker in Lewandowski but an aggressive opposition side and a partisan crowd.
When Southgate was asked before the match about his team’s recent ‘swagger’, the England boss replied they had to get the balance right — do the hard yards or come unstuck.
He wasn’t wrong. Poland were not going to allow England to strut around their manor. With defender Kamil Glik the irritant-in-chief, they were determined to get up English noses.
Lewandowski, a goal machine with no signs of rust at the age of 33, had ten goals in six games for club and country this season coming into this match.
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Jordan Pickford smothered a Lewandowski lob when the Pole got himself a first-half sighter.
But Stones kept him well-shackled until England wobbled late on, first when Pickford was almost embarrassed by an attempted clearance being charged down, then when they allowed Szymanski to cancel out Harry Kane’s strike by heading home a late cross.
Still, there will be no panic from Southgate and neither is there any need for alarm — especially with Stones back at the heart of his defence.
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