Pre-match: Well, the BBC have managed to upset me already, by playing Labi Siffre’s elegant anti-Apartheid anthem “So Strong” while looking back over their constant close shaves in qualifying for the finals of major tournaments. Grrr. If the commentary for this match suddenly switches over to Wales-Germany without any warning, you’ll know the reason why. Elsewhere, Steve McClaren is still grinning like an idiot, though there is, just from looking at him, still the faint whiff of the condemned man about him. You know how you looked at Graham Taylor shouting and screaming during the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign and thought, “oh no”? Yeah. It’s a bit like that. Meanwhile, it has been raining in London all day and the Wembley pitch is absolutely sodden. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t be half surprised if the match was abandoned, if the rain gets a lot worse. Mind you, there are some men out there prodding at it with garden forks, so the vast resources of the FA are already tackling the problem. The England team lines up as follows: Carson, Richards, Bridge, Campbell, Lescott, Barry, Wright-Phillips, Gerrard, Lampard, Joe Cole, Crouch. Now, I’m all in favour of picking youth where possible, but this team leaves me feeling uneasy. It could be Sol Campbell’s last match for England tonight, by the way. Also, Paul Robinson’s form may have collapsed of late, but I’m not certain about Scott Carson starting such an important match in goal. My final massive concern (I haven’t got the time to go into my feelings on Gerrard and Lampard both starting, on recent form, right now) is the lack of fire-power, with Peter Crouch starting more or less on his own up front. What a brilliant move it was, playing an injury prone striker like Michael Owen in Vienna last Friday night. Anyway, back in fifteen, in time for kick-off.
20.00: The pitch looks as bad from a distance as it did close up. The referee looks like Arsene Wenger, which is very unsettling indeed.
20.05: Who are these people that insist on taking big bass drums into football stadia? What on earth makes them think that this is what I want to hear? If I wanted a big bass drum, I’d switch this off and listen to “Physical Graffiti” by Led Zeppelin instead. Actually, England haven’t started badly. Now, there’s a hex.
20.08: Goal – England 0-1 Croatia: What did I say? What did I say? A moderate shot from outside the area from Krankjar, and Carson spills the ball in to give Croatia the lead. It’s all gone quiet over there.
20.11: Wright-Phillips gets the ball in space and shoots, but is blocked. This is followed by a wholly unconvincing claim for a penalty. With eighty minutes to go, where is this goal going to come from?
20.17: Wembley has gone almost eerily quiet, now. Steve McClaren is holding onto a concrete post in the manner of a man about to have a heart attack, and his head has gone very purple.
20.21: Bloody hell. The BBC are getting desperate now. They’re still saying that England are still home and dry because (you’re going to like this) Russian haven’t scored against Andorra yet. Yet.
20.28: Awww. He’s cuddling his umbrella now. For all the effect that they’ve had so far, neither Gerrard nor Lampard could be playing, and it would have made no difference whatsoever.
20.33: Croatia, John Motson has just told me, have been down to ten men for the last five minutes, and I hadn’t even noticed. England are starting to look busier, but it’s all haste and no speed. They’re just going to keep lumping balls into the penalty and nothing will come of it. Believe it or not, I haven’t got a crystal ball.
20.41: Hooray! Russia have scored against Andorra!
20.43: Carson flaps at a shot from distance like a nun swatting a fly. This could end up 4-0 or 5-0, at this rate.
20.46: Half-Time – Absolutely awful. Gerrard doesn’t look fit, they all look as if they going out of their way to not pass to Shaun Wright-Philips, and there is simply no point in having a player like Crouch there on his up front on his own to knock the ball down when there is no-one to knock the ball down to. The delivery from free-kicks has been atrocious and, generally, they’re playing like Notts County – thumping the ball forward for the Croatian defenders to sweep up. They could keep going at this rate for the next twenty-four hours and they won’t score playing like this.
Second Half – Defoe and Beckham on for Barry and Wright-Phillips. He’s going to 4-4-2, but it won’t make any difference. Oh – ha ha ha. I’m sure that the crowd just booed them onto the pitch for the start of the second half.
21.05: Terry Venables watched the first half in the Royal Box, apparently. I’m almost surprised he’s not wearing a crown. Gerrardwatchers might be interested to know that it took one minute and six seconds of the second half before Gerrard to let the ball bounce off his knee.
21.08: England free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, but Beckham’s tame shot is deflected over. Croatia break quickly and England’s defence is presumably still on the edge of the Croatian penalty area, having some sort of tea party. I think that Terry Venables may be constipated.
21.10: Eduardo gets free, and Carson, after hesitating, saves with this feet. The replay indicates that the shot was probably going into the side netting anyway.
21.13: GOAL – England 1-2 Croatia: Terrible penalty decision – Jermaine Defoe was held back by Simunic, but he’d have needed legs like Inspector Gadget to get anywhere near the ball. Notably, it appears to have been given by the referee rather than the linesman. Lampard scores it comfortably.
21.15: It’s starting to open up. Croatia hit the cross bar, and then Carson makes a brilliant save from the resulting corner.
21.20: Olic is put through on goal after another terrible piece of defending by Bridge, but he snatches at the shot and Carson, who is actually starting to visibly grow in confidence, saves. Croatia are about six times as likely to score as England right now, by my reckoning.
21.22: GOAL – England 2-2 Croatia – Oh, bloody hell. Beckham crosses from the right and Crouch, of all people, finally does what he’s paid to do and finishes brilliantly. Croatia had plenty of chances to finish this off at 2-1 and, up to a point, have brought this about themselves.
21.26: Just when you start thinking, “oh, fair play England for coming from two down”, the crowd start singing “God Save The Bloody Queen”, and I want Croatia to score again.
21.33: Croatia, I get the feeling, are starting to just run down the clock a little bit with this match. I still fancy them to sneak a third goal, mind.
21.35: GOAL – England 2-3 Croatia: Croatia were starting to wind down a bit, but Lampard starting throwing himself about in the middle of the pitch. A minute later, Petric curls the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the penalty area.
21.40: They’re not going to score, England, just in case you were wondering. They’ve had every chance to get back into this, got back into it with a massive slice of luck and still managed to throw it away. They haven’t so much as looked like scoring since. I’m not a believer, but there are wider forces at work here. They’re getting what they deserve in a very profound way.
21.43: Bent gets though and shoots just over. I hadn’t even noticed that he had come on.
21.45: I think that John Motson might be about to burst into tears. “Surely, there’s got to be one more chance, surely. Say something, Mark, say something“. I’m not making this up.
21.49: FULL TIME – England 2-3 Croatia: And that’s your lot. There’s no part of this that England, and the whole money-centric, insular world of English football doesn’t deserve. They have been outplayed by one reasonable and one moderate team, and do not deserve to be amongst the top sixteen in Europe next summer. Even when they got back to 2-2, they still managed to get themselves carved open and throw it away. There was a part of me that, on account of the general bad-minding about England almost wanted them to win but, ultimately, they didn’t deserve it. Now, can we get rid of McClaren, Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham and all the rest of them, forget about trying to win the next World Cup, and start trying to rebuild a team around young players that want to win and that don’t act like the sort of people that you’d want to punch if you ever met them. It won’t be enough to get rid of McClaren, though that would be a start, of sorts. His position, however, is almost certainly untenable. The likes of Brian Barwick, though, should also be considering their positions.