By Mike Collett
LONDON, Oct 16 (Reuters) - A month after being criticised for being too conservative and blinkered following a dour goalless draw with Ukraine, England coach Roy Hodgson was being heaped with praise for guiding the side to the World Cup finals on Wednesday.
England's roller-coaster ride through a tough group which alternated wins and draws until victories in the last two matches, culminating with Tuesday's 2-0 triumph over Poland, ensured his men finished a point ahead of Ukraine to take the automatic qualifying spot for next year's finals in Brazil.
Hodgson, 66, described the achievement as the finest of his long career, while at the same time emphasising he was also proud of leading Switzerland to the World Cup in 1994 and the European championships two years later.
Ultimately, he was keeping his feet firmly on the ground and not getting carried away with the achievement.
"I was lucky enough to go to a World Cup with Switzerland, and I was very proud of that especially as Switzerland did not have the quality of players that we have here," Hodgson told reporters.
"But to be an Englishman and to take your own country to the World Cup makes me especially proud.
"This team is growing in terms of accepting pressure and dealing with it and the real beauty for me is the blend between the established players and the younger players.
"I now have six months to prepare for the World Cup and am not thinking about what we will do there yet.
"But we have a chance, if you want to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket, well, and now we have our ticket."
Now that qualification has been secured, all England soccer followers know exactly what to expect next.
The side's chances will be discussed non-stop and at great length between now and the start of the finals because there is no escape from the microscopic scrutiny by newspapers, television and radio.
Every move, every decision, every mistake and every success will be analysed and dissected each day between now and next June, and the debate has already begun.
In previous years, England have been talked up as World Cup winners, even though they have only enjoyed success once nearly 50 years ago and the last time they reached the semi-finals was almost a quarter of century ago in 1990.
On Wednesday, former England winger John Barnes, a member of the side that finished fourth at Italia '90 and reached the quarter-finals four years earlier, criticised the formation Hodgson used on Tuesday, even though England won and qualified.
"If he plays the way he did against Poland with two wide players and two central midfield players against the likes of Spain, Italy, Brazil and Argentina, we will not get near the World Cup," Barnes told Talksport radio.
However, plenty of other commentators praised Hodgson for "taking the handbrake off", playing with an effective front four and coming through the group unbeaten.
No-one, at least for now, has predicted England can win in Brazil but Hodgson has been around too long to be swayed by what his critics say and although his career has experienced lows as well as highs, there is a feel-good factor surrounding his team.
Since Hodgson took over in May last year following the departure of Fabio Capello, England have played 22 matches and lost just one in regulation time - a 4-2 friendly defeat to Sweden last November.
Although they were knocked out on penalties by Italy at Euro 2012, the team has progressed and the development of youngsters such as Andros Townsend, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge alongside stalwarts like Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, the two scorers against Poland, can only be positive for Hodgson.
At times during the campaign, England were difficult to watch and the football lacked pace and excitement, but in retrospect, the draws in Poland, Montenegro and Ukraine were all points won rather than lost as England topped the group.
The closing wins over Montenegro and Poland showed England can play with ambition and adventure, and now Hodgson has nine months to shape a strategy for an assault on soccer's biggest prize.
If he needs any advice how to approach the task at hand, there is little doubt he will have plenty of people giving him their opinion every day between now and England's opening match in Brazil. (Editing by John O'Brien)