Missing out on a major tournament is always a painful bookmark, and in that respect, two years in particular stand out in ‘modern’, Premier League times for England – 1994 and 2008. These were the years of the fifteenth FIFA World Cup and thirteenth UEFA European Championship.
Many names, no heroes
In the qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup, England had an embarrassment of riches at their disposal. Amongst them were Alan Shearer and Andrew Cole, who spent the 1993/94 Premier League season tearing opposition defences to pieces, as they drove their respective clubs to a podium finish.
Elsewhere, the ox-strong Les Ferdinand, was QPR’s main figure of menace, while Ian Wright was a major component in giving Arsenal the potency necessary to win their last major European honours. Yet, no combination of that quartet truly clicked as a partnership in the white of England, and get the home wins of Norway and the Netherlands that would have made all the difference.
Fourteen years later, the same tale of unfulfilled potential would unfold. The squad that failed to reach Euro 2008 was widely dubbed the ‘Golden Generation’, with the likes to Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard all representing clubs that have since won Premier League titles, and are extremely popular amongst those that follow the latest trends and bet on sporting events across the world.
Despite their club-level successes, the latter two men were infamous for their inability to form a midfield partnership with England.
England were not short of goals in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup, but away defeats to the eventual top two ended their hopes.
England at the 1994 World Cup
England would have found themselves in pot 3 for the 1994 World Cup draw, amongst the top European teams not given top seeding based on their previous World Cup performance. In the event of their qualification, they would have replaced the Netherlands, who were drawn into Group F.
As such, England open their mythical 1994 World Cup campaign with a match against Saudi Arabia, who had a strong tournament by their standards in reality, finishing as group runners up.
In the alternate 1994, England outclass them – and the pointless Morocco – but a match vs Belgium provides the main catalyst to debate. They were strong adversaries, and beat the Netherlands in the real turn of events, but lost to England in the previous World Cup, giving the Three Lions a potential edge.
As such, England win the group in 1994 with a perfect record, leading them to face the Republic of Ireland. England have found the Irish to be difficult customers in the past, but they just about scrape through, winning 2-1 in extra time after a last-minute equaliser from Ireland.
There is no such luck in the next round though, with England meeting Brazil, who beat the Netherlands 3-2 in the actual tournament:
England at Euro 2008
In Euro 2008, England’s so-called Golden Generation would have replaced Croatia in pot 2 – narrowly missing out on Pot 1 due to their lesser UEFA coefficient compared to the Netherlands. In the real world, Croatia joined Germany, Austria and Poland, making this a difficult group for England in our alternate reality.
Fearless as they were in qualifying, Croatia won the group with a perfect three-win return. It is less easy to envisage England doing likewise, as they are winless against Germany in all major finals since a 1-0 victory against the old enemy at Euro 2000 – albeit a very academic one. With England finishing second behind Germany, with two wins and a defeat, It is here that the alternate universe becomes all the more different.
Germany instead face Turkey in the quarter finals, while England are consigned to a match with Portugal. As they did four years previously, England get off to a good start but draw 1-1, and bow out in extra time.
This is how Euro 2008 unfolded in reality.
A difficult call
Nobody can deny that England fully deserved to miss out on the plane to both tournaments, but the shocking qualifying campaigns tell barely half of the story. Both failures came from squads that showed a lot of promise, and with certain personnel at their deadly peak at club level in the run up to the missed tournaments, there is a real sense of opportunity lost.
Both alternate realities have England reaching the quarter finals. Unlike the hypothetical 1994 meeting with an unstoppable Brazil, the Portugal game of ‘alternate’ Euro 2008 is a 50/50 call. In the event of England prevailing, a semi-final rematch with Germany – and probable elimination – would have been a likely outcome.
Ultimately, the Euro 2008 squad would have progressed further, especially if Steve McLaren – for all his very obvious faults – had proven able to solve the infamous Gerrard/Lampard midfield conundrum.