Well, no matter which way you look at it, there aren’t many, are there? This will be a quickie, ahead of a live commentary of tonight’s match at Wembley. It’s probably not helping much that I’m watching England’s best international performance on DVD as I write this (the 2001 win in Munich, as if you need ask). Let’s get a couple of things out of the way first: this is by no means a done deal, and any talk of a carve-up between England and Croatia is as much nonsense as the talk of the possibility of Roman Abramovich paying off the home team in last Saturday’s match between Israel and Russia was. Professional footballers are like thoroughbred horses in that respect, although some are more like Red Rum than others, and some are more likely to be headed for the glue factory than others – they are coached for years and years to win. To say that Croatia will turn up tonight and, for some reason, not bother is, frankly, insulting to them.
Before we go any further, here are a few things that I want no mention of in the press or from the crowd during tonight’s match and its inevitable aftermath: I don’t want to hear anything at all about bad luck. England are ludicrously lucky to still be in the competition at all going into tonight’s match. For all the Grade A horse dung that I hear about Beckham’s sending off in St-Etienne in 1998 and Wayne Rooney’s injury in 2004, I can, without breaking into a sweat, give you two or three examples of England being unbelievably lucky. The vast majority of times that England have failed to achieve, they have failed to do so because of their own incompetence. If David Beckham comes on as a substitute and they get a free-kick just outside the penalty area, I will put my foot through the screen if I hear the words “Beckham” and “territory” being used next to each other. I would like to hear the BBC being unbiased tonight (though the chances of that happening are slim to nil) and I would like to not hear any excuses whatsoever about the pitch, or injuries or anything, should they fail tonight. Let me just remind you all of something. England are plenty capable of losing tonight. They have a goalkeeper that has only played about three times at international level, and are playing two players in the midfield who, as we have seen time and time again, cannot play together. This is the culture of English football. If Croatia go a goal up, and with Owen and Rooney injured, I can’t see where an England goal is likely to come from.
Reaching back into the past, there have been many nights like this before this one. The first cut, as former singer and now celebrity Scotland supporter Rod Stewart (who, let us not forget, was born in London now lives and in a tax haven in the Carribbean) once said, is the deepest, and England’s failure in 1973 will still bring a tear to the eye of some men of a certain age. Everybody knows about that night at Wembley against Poland, but the seeds of England’s demise were sown in Chorzow earlier in the year when a poor performance and a 2-0 defeat left them needing a win in their final match rather than just having to avoid defeat in the first place. They were dealt a slightly tough hand in 1978, drawn against the Italians with only one team qualifying and in 1984, no-one even knew that the Denmark team that knocked them out were on their way to becoming one of the top ten teams in the world. Finally, in trying to get to the World Cup finals in 1994, Graham Taylor was dealt a double whammy of being incompetent and having terrible luck. They were unlucky in losing to the Dutch in their final significant match in Rotterdam (cf: Ronald Koeman), but the seeds of this implosion were sown in their failure to beat either Norway or Holland, home or away. Their 2-0 defeat in Oslo remains arguably the worst performance I’ve ever seen by an England team.
Once in the European Championship Finals, there isn’t much by way of good omens to go on either. It’s worth remembering that their 2-0 win against Scotland at Euro 96 was England’s first win in a European Championship Finals match since a meaningless 2-1 win against Spain in Naples sixteen years previously. They failed to qualify in 1984, lost all three matches in 1988 and were knocked out of a relatively weak group in 1992, as well. Since then, there hasn’t been a great deal of improvement. In 2000, they narrowly beat arguably the worst German national team in living memory, but this win was dwarfed by them throwing a two goal lead away against Portugal and throwing away a 2-1 lead against Romania when they only needed a draw to get through to the quarter-finals. For good omens, we could look to Euro 2004. Considering the fortunate run that England had to the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup (when they were dreadful in the group stages, scoring just two goals in three matches, and very lucky against Belgium and Cameroon before, ironically, losing a semi-final against West Germany in which they played their best football of the tournament) and Euro 96 (disjointed against Switzerland and reliant on one last moment of genius from Paul Gascoigne’s flickering flame against Scotland when they should have been pegged back to 1-1 by Gary McAllister’s penalty just seconds before, they then beat Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals while Spain had a perfectly good goal disallowed for offside in extra-time), Euro 2004 was arguably England’s best performance in the finals of a major tournament since 1970. Against France, they should really have been 2-0 up when two late defensive errors gave the French an ill-deserved win. They then followed this up by brushing Switzerland aside in a manner which showed up the 1996 effort against them for what it was and, once in the quarter-finals, had a perfectly good last minute goal disallowed against the hosts, Portugal. If you are looking for good omens for England (and I’m not, to be honest – if they get knocked out, it will be a pretty good thing for English football), then their final group match against Croatia is a pretty good place to start looking. They won 4-2, but the manner of their win was outstanding. After Munich in 2001 and the match against Holland in 1996, it is the third best England performance that I’ve ever seen.
That, though, is where the good omens begin and end, unless you factor in England’s tendency to do just enough to get to the finals of major tournaments. Such a reliance on leaving it to the last minute, though, is, to say the least, living dangerously. That, accompanied with the unabashed mediocrity of the current batch of “stars” leads me to believe that we could be for a night to rival Wembley in 1973 or Rotterdam in 1993. I’ll be back here in about forty minutes bringing you most of the action, less than five minutes after it has actually happened. Ah, the joys of the multi-media age.