England qualified for the World Cup in Russia with relative ease, despite having a campaign that failed to inspire at times.
It was a campaign that was more about expectation than dreams, but England are officially heading to Russia, after the Three Lions wrapped up a professional job, topping their FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying group, on Sunday October 8th.
When the draw was made for the qualifying stages back in July 2015, few would have expected England to be challenged for top spot in group F by Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta, or auld enemy Scotland. And so it proved, with Gareth Southgate's side eventually finishing eight points ahead of both Scotland and Slovakia.
But it wasn't all plain sailing along the way. England came into the campaign on the back of a disastrous exit at Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, and had to contend with controversy early on, when manager Sam Allardyce was sacked for malpractice only one game into England's qualifying efforts.
A sluggish start
Allardyce's one and only chance to coach the Three Lions came in Slovakia in September 2016, when England's campaign got off to a nervy start, relying on a 95th minute Adam Lallana strike to give them the win.
Just over a month later, and with Gareth Southgate now at the helm, England made it two wins from two, but the unconvincing nature of the victory was starting to become a theme, as minnows Malta restricted England to just a 2-0 win at Wembley thanks to goals from Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli.
Further frustration was still to come just days later, however, when a dreadful performance in Ljubljana saw England almost fall to Slovenia. Only the heroics of goalkeeper Joe Hart saved Southgate's side from an embarrassing loss, with the then-Torino keeper making two fantastic stops from Josip Ilicic in a worrying 0-0 draw.
Topping the group
England might have been atop group F after the first three rounds of matches, but it wasn't until they welcomed old enemy Scotland to Wembley in November 2016 that they really showed their quality. The Three Lions outclassed the Scots from the off in the much-anticipated clash, and headed goals from Sturridge, Lallana and Gary Cahill gave England a comfortable win.
It wasn't the same story at Hampden a few months later, however, and although England enjoyed another convincing victory over Lithuania between the two meetings, the return against Scotland was almost the low point of the campaign. Celtic's Leigh Griffiths twice struck with exquisite free kicks for Gordon Strachan's men, and it took a last-gasp Harry Kane goal to rescue England a point and a 2-2 draw in Glasgow.
Southgate's side rounded off the mid-part of their campaign with a 4-0 win in Malta, although the result was a lot more convincing than it might have been, with three of England's goals coming in the last four minutes.
An uninspiring end
England went into the last two international breaks of the qualifying campaign knowing they had their place in Russia almost secured, but although they would go on to extend their record to 38 games unbeaten in qualifying, fans were less than impressed with how the campaign ended.
September saw England beat Slovakia at home, but they had to come from behind at Wembley after Stanislav Lobotka scored early. Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford turned it around for the Three Lions, but it was a less-than-convincing performance.
The final two games saw England make it four wins in a row, but the 1-0 wins at Wembley against Slovenia and in Vilnius against Lithuania were not the confident sign-off fans wanted to see. A late Harry Kane goal saw England to victory against Slovenia, in a game where the team were heavily criticised, before the Tottenham man rounded off qualifying from the spot to book England's place on the plane.
It remains to be seen how well England will perform at the World Cup, but although the qualifying campaign often saw the team fail to inspire, the goalscoring prowess of Kane and the performances of Rashford, as well as an unbeaten road to Russia, does give hope that it could well be England's year.