Class of Euro 2004 should have gone all the way
Sean Marland @seanmarland
To some football fans an international break is like a weekend with the in-laws. Both occasions are necessary in the wider scheme of things, but usually very uncomfortable and almost always a waste of a perfectly good Saturday afternoon.
However, while there’s a chance that listening politely to your mother-in-law’s ramblings might actually pay off in the form of a healthy inheritance, these days the only reward you’re likely to receive for enduring an England qualifying campaign is a summer of dashed dreams and painful questions.
With the much-feted Golden Generation™ now on the way out, England seem to have swapped heroic penalty failure for abject incompetence, yet we all remember the times when our national team fleetingly looked like genuine contenders.
Much has been made of the way many England managers foolishly under-valued Paul Scholes, but while it’s true to say that his international retirement in 2004 coincided with a slump that the national team still haven’t dragged themselves out of, I would go as far as to say that the England side he played in that summer was the finest we have seen since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup nearly half a century ago.
The generations of 1990 and 1996 might have gone closer to winning a trophy, but the team that travelled to Portugal played with purpose, showed real spirit and, in the an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney, had a match-winner on the hottest streak of his career.
There have been teams that can get away without a stand-alone talisman – the current Spain side immediately comes to mind – but football teams from planet Earth usually need to base their challenge around a inspirational lynchpin (Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio etc) in the month-long scramble of an international tournament.
Yet as anyone who watched Lionel Messi at last year’s World Cup knows, being a great player is only half the battle; only a great player in the form of his life has the ability to turn a good team into champions.
Paul Gascoigne and Michael Owen had both taken tournaments by storm for England in the past, but Rooney was something very special in 2004. Quick, creative, powerful and clinical, before injuries slowed him down in his early twenties, Rooney used to make world-class defenders look like pub footballers on a regular basis.
Rooney may be coming back into his best form at the moment, but there are definitely small windows where natural talent, youthful confidence and the element of surprise can create the perfect storm and bring about a unique moment in a player’s career.
He was (and is) better than Gazza and Owen because he combined all their talents and had a pitbullish physique that belied his tender years. He was almost unplayable that summer… until he broke his foot.
This might be an article about the quality of England’s side circa 2004, but Rooney was such an effective catalyst for an already excellent team that his contribution deserves special mention.
I don’t want to laud the ex-Evertonian’s contribution to this side at the expense of others, but not to give him special attention would be akin to writing a nostalgia piece about Nirvana and only mentioning Kurt Cobain in the last paragraph. This article is not a tribute to Rooney, but recognition that his form galvanised a fine team for a short period of time seven years ago, giving them an extra dimension.
We all remember how the Rooney exploded into the football universe as a 16-year-old with a goal for Everton against Arsenal in October 2002, but few remember his substitute appearance at Old Trafford a couple of weeks before that.
His first contribution was an air shot that saw him jeered by the United fans, but the booing was replaced by a worried silence when the 16-year-old picked the ball up and surged past two defenders to go one-on-one with Fabien Barthez a couple of minutes later.
Back at the start of his career this devastating change of pace was Rooney’s hallmark and he had been terrorising defences up and down the land for a couple of seasons by the time he took the field against France in Lisbon.
We’d already seen him destroy Turkey in qualifying and in the second half of England’s opening fixture he outstripped Lilian Thuram and Co, running 40 yards before a hapless defender finally managed to drag him down for a penalty. Like their Premiership counterparts, France simply didn’t know how to handle the sheer force and precision of the irrepressible teenager.
David Beckham’s penalty was duly saved by Barthez and a couple of foolish errors (more of that later) cost England a win that they deserved. France might not have been the same team that won the European crown with such panache four years earlier, but they were certainly a long way from their South African nadir.
This was a side that boasted serial Ballon d’Or winner Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele (in the Makelele position) and Arsenal Invincibles Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. Furthermore Frank Lampard’s goal against them was the first they’d conceded in more than 1,000 minutes of football.
It took England half an hour to play themselves into the tournament, but while Jacques Santini’s team were making the early running in the group opener, England’s defence held firm. With Rio Ferdinand still serving a suspension for missing a drug test and John Terry absent through injury, the glass-kneed Ledley King stepped in to partner Sol Campbell at the back and was immense.
England also had two fine – if very different – full-backs in Gary Neville and Ashley Cole. At twenty-nine, Neville added solidity and defensive nous, but the more youthful Arsenal left-back was a weapon whose pace allowed Steven Gerrard a relatively free reign on the left.
The long relationship between Neville and Beckham down the right flank for club and country has been well-publicised, but Cole and Gerrard were also instrumental down the other flank on this occasion.
For my money, Cole has always been underrated by English fans, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better left-back anywhere in the world over the last couple of decades. In 2004 he was at the height of his powers and he and Neville extinguished a vibrant Cristiano Ronaldo as he switched from one wing to the other in the ensuing quarter-final.
The aberration against France was quickly put right a few days later when a brace from Rooney and a goal from Gerrard saw off a rather mediocre Swiss outfit. Rooney also led England to another victory against Croatia in England’s final game, with Lampard and Paul Scholes adding a goal each.
In total, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side scored 10 goals in four matches that month – a record that those who ventured to South Africa last summer would have marvelled at.
Measuring an England team against the yardstick of 2010 is always going to generate positive results, but suggesting that the class of 2004 had more potential than those that made semi-final appearances in the 1990s is quite a large step. The presence of Rooney at a unique moment in his career is a good reason for this claim, but one of the best midfield quartets this country has ever produced was also crucial.
Fans won’t need to be reminded of Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes and Beckham’s various talents, but the way they gelled during this era was notable.
All four players were aged between 24 and 29 and although Lampard had pushed his way into the team relatively recently, the rest had been playing as a unit for some years. Crucially, unlike the midfields of 1990 and 1996 respectively, every one of them knew where the back of the net was.
There was a time when you couldn’t enter a pub without hearing someone lamenting the inarguable fact that Gerrard and Lampard “just couldn’t play together”, but not much is made of the way Lampard – who was on the brink of his finest period in a Chelsea shirt – dovetailed seamlessly with Scholes in the centre that year.
Their combined energy and guile always seemed to make England look dangerous and with the equally diverse Gerrard and Beckham on either flank, it was a midfield that could score, provide and due to their experience, interchange with real fluidity.
As a quartet they scored more goals in Portugal than the entire team managed in South Africa and in just four games (two of which were against the defending champions and hosts respectively) the class of 2004 outscored every other side in English tournament history, with the exception of the 1966 World Cup winners.
In a famous team-talk, Lions coach Jim Telfer once spoke of the importance of teams within teams and, unlike England sides of recent years, there was understanding all over the pitch in 2004.
Neville and Beckham, Cole and Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes, Campbell and Terry, Owen and Rooney – an England side has rarely been more united. Even more crucially, every single one of them was the right side of 30. But there was one problem.
Very little fuss was made when Sven decided to replace David Seaman with David James as national No.1 after the former conceded a goal direct from a corner against Macedonia, but when West Ham were relegated in 2003, there were some raised eyebrows when Eriksson opted to keep him between the posts.
James’ various strengths and weaknesses have been well documented, but there can be no doubt that a season in the Championship was not the best preparation for Zidane et al.
When you study clips of the goals England conceded, it becomes obvious that James was responsible for most of them and although he is rightly renowned for being an excellent shot-stopper, his reactions looked uncharacteristically sluggish during that summer.
Watch the replays and you’ll notice that he’s standing on the wrong side of the goal for free-kick that Zidane converted to equalise for France in the opener. The commentator may have gushed but in reality it was a very average free-kick that would have been saved easily by a goalkeeper not lurking behind his wall.
The penalty James conceded against Henry bore all the hallmarks of a goalkeeper who was out of practice at the top level and Portugal’s quarter-final equaliser also makes for uncomfortable viewing, with Helder Postiga’s rather tame header beating the West Ham man far too easily. But it speaks volumes for the state of English goalkeeping at the time that the country’s best was languishing in the second tier.
Yet that equaliser should really have become academic when Campbell scored an injury-time winner to put England 2-1 up, but the Arsenal man’s effort was disallowed just as an eerily similar goal against Argentina in 1998 had been. To have one glorious late winner ruled out was a cruel twist of fate for Campbell, but for lightning to strike twice must have been akin to losing not one, but two winning lottery tickets.
However while the decision to rule out his goal six years earlier was defensible, you can’t help but feel that under intense circumstances, Urs Meier cracked at the thought of dumping Portugal out if there was the merest tincture of controversy. Although these things happen – I remember Spain having at least one good goal ruled out in the Euro 96 quarter-final.
With Owen putting England in front early (he has scored in every knockout international he has participated in) and Scholes and Gerrard pulling the Portuguese defence all over the pitch, England looked relatively comfortable in the first half against the hosts. The balance might have been damaged when Rooney departed, but the side’s momentum and maturity meant that it didn’t crack as the pressure mounted.
This was a team full of leaders and proven match-winners. Most of them had experienced World Cups and Champions Leagues at the sharp end and represented the finest the Premiership had to offer.
Others, such as Terry who was about to captain Chelsea to back-to-back titles, were just coming into their prime and it was this strength that allowed them to battle back and make it 2-2 with just minutes of the extra-time remaining.
Indeed that Lampard goal remains the only time that England have come from behind in extra-time at a major tournament. We even did quite well in the penalty shoot-out (making a rare foray into sudden-death territory) before eventually succumbing to tradition.
Yet with the benefit of hindsight, the most galling thing about England’s exit was that with Italy, Germany and Spain crashing out in the group stages, France falling in the quarters and the Dutch looking decidedly average, the Championship was there for the taking.
In the end an untalented yet rigidly organised Greece side won with tactics that gave catenaccio a bad name. A modern sporting equivalent would be watching Andy Murray fail to win next summer’s Wimbledon after watching Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic get knocked out by a wildcards.
But if Sven’s men had a genuine shot at glory in 2004, circumstances would conspire to deny them the same opportunities in the years to come.
One of the main reasons for the side failing to click since has been the fact that Rooney has been either injured or half-fit at the last two tournaments England have managed to qualify for. When you couple this with the retirement of Scholes – a player only fully appreciated by England after Xavi and Co became fashionable – then it’s easy to see why a team that moved towards its thirties without much fresh talent (until now) struggled.
The press may have told us that 2006 was the golden generation’s last chance at glory, but in truth their time had already passed. Add the turmoil that surrounded preparations for the World Cups in Germany (Fake Sheikh) and South Africa (Terry) and the post mortem of the last two debacles is complete.
I watched the 2004 quarter-final with 50,000 others at Glastonbury and while I will admit to drinking a ridiculous amount of during the match, I remember feeling a genuine connection with the team as they battled back from the brink against all.
But unlike in the years before, I was looking beyond the game in question because I felt that THIS time, we could go all the way.
For a couple of weeks back in the summer of 2004, a generation of great English players came as close to a collective peak as is possible and the rarity of such an occasion was never really grasped in the months and years that followed.
With the emergence of a new generation of young English players, we can only hope that Rooney one day leads Phil Jones, Ashley Young and Jack Wilshere to the victory that eluded him. Roll on next summer.
If you enjoyed this, then check out Mark Segal’s take on Joe Cole in “Diamonds Aren’t Forever”