We all know how this story ends, the rain pours down upon Wembley stadium, masking the tears of 88,000+ shellshocked and heartbroken fans after watching their team fail to qualify for an international tournament for the first time since the 1994 World Cup. English players fall to the ground in anguish. The images of manager Steve McClaren, standing in the dugout holding a red and blue FA branded umbrella is iconic. He was meant to be judged on how he handled England at Euro 2008 – the qualification stage was meant to be a formality…
To not qualify for the 2008 European Championships in Austria and Switzerland was, quite frankly, disgraceful. This was a team that went into international tournaments with an aspiration of winning; a team who felt aggrieved to have departed the last World Cup at the quarter-final stage.
The England side that competed throughout qualification starred John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, two of the world’s finest centre-backs at the time. It had Ashley Cole, who was establishing himself as the best left-back in the world, and Gary Neville, a player who was past his prime but was still a regular for Manchester United. Midfielder boasted Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, both in their prime, as well as the experience of David Beckham. Wayne Rooney was the poster boy for English football, while goal scorers such as Peter Crouch and Jermaine Defoe acted as strong options to replace the Manchester United forward. In short, this was an England team that should have blown most sides out of the water.
While the usual big-hitters like Germany, Spain, France and Italy all set their sights on silverware in the Alpine mountains of central Europe, England had the displeasure of spending their summer in the company of fellow Home Nation sides Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, stuck at home with nothing but the bitter feeling of jealously and regret.
None of this was supposed to happen. Following the team’s defeat to Portugal at World Cup 2006, a painful penalty shootout defeat following the controversial Rooney red card, the next two years were meant to be a redemption mission. The so-called Golden Generation of 2006 were meant to be toughened up after such heartbreak.
A relatively straightforward qualifying group featuring Croatia, Russia, Israel, Macedonia, Estonia and Andorra should have, in theory, been a bit of a confidence boosting task, propelling the Three Lions into the 2008 finals chomping at the bit. This did not transpire. What actually happened was nothing short of disastrous and arguably sent England on a downwards trajectory so severe that it took almost a decade to recover from.
McClaren’s England stint seemed doomed from the start. In January 2006, Sven-Göran Eriksson announced that he would be stepping down as England manager following the World Cup, sending the media into a frenzy of guessing who would replace the Swede. Former World Cup winning manager, Luiz Felippe Scolari, World Cup winning manager with Brazil in 2002, was the front runner and was offered the job by the FA. After much consideration, however, Scolari rejected the job, citing the ever-present media scrutinization as the reason for his apprehension and rejection.
McClaren was the second choice, at least. From his own personal point of view, he earned the England job, he was happy. He had worked hard for this opportunity and was ready to grab it with both hands. To the media though, he was the second choice, and to them, this meant he was the last choice. No matter what he did with the national team, he was up against it.
The campaign started off magnificently, a 5-0 pummelling at home to Andorra put the Three Lions on top of the group. Doubles from Crouch and Defoe, as well as a Gerrard goal, ensured that the McClaren era was off to a flier. Their next game saw another win, though in slightly less emphatic fashion. A Crouch goal just after the half was enough to bag the three points in Macedonia. This was to be the last competitive win that McClaren would oversee for six months.
Macedonia proved tough to beat away from home, but they came to England a month later and sat in even deeper. After a hard-fought 90 minutes at Old Trafford, the game ended goalless. It was one bad result, they were still top of their group, and yet the doubt began to creep in.
Rather than having a nice, easy morale boosting game, England had to take a trip out to Zagreb to take on a Croatia side who had just scored seven unanswered goals to Andorra. This was always going to be a tough encounter and England did not rise to the occasion. A dinked header from Eduardo set England up for a poor start, but it was the second goal that really knocked the wind out of the English sales, one of the most shambolic own goals that the nation has ever conceded…
With England stepping up the pressure with 20 minutes to go, right-back Neville received the ball just outside his own box. He saw no obvious passing option ahead of him, therefore opted to turn back towards his own goal and give goalkeeper Paul Robinson the ball. Rather than taking a touch and looking for a pass, Robinson decided to use the momentum of the ball and hit it first time towards the strikers. Regrettably for the then-Tottenham ‘keeper, the turf in the Maksimir Stadium, home of Dinamo Zagreb, was in particularly poor condition. The ball hit a divot at the worst conceivable moment and bobbled over his feet, trickling into the back of his net. There was nothing anybody could do but watch in horror as the opposition’s lead was doubled.
Due to their being an odd number in their qualification group, England did not play a competitive fixture in November, allowing Croatia and Russia to pile on the pressure. England played out a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, regaining a shred of pride after their last international endeavour. This shred of pride was taken away at the start of the next international break in March, however.
Israel were proving to be a feisty opponent; they were beating the teams that they were expected to beat. They had held Russia to a draw in Moscow and had put three goals passed Croatia (albeit conceding four). They were no pushovers, but the expectation was still simple for McClaren. Three points. After some tough results in October, the idea of qualifying with full points and goals aplenty was being tempered. Just keeping the pace and qualifying by any means necessary was fast becoming the goal. A 0-0 draw played out and the nation was in outrage.
England had the chance to restore a little national pride four days later against Andorra, and, credit where credit is due, they won and kept a clean sheet away from home. This 3-0 win, while convincing against the opposition, was hardly earth shattering and a stark contrast from their 5-0 thrashing at Old Trafford the year before. David Nugent scoring on his England debut (which would also be his final international appearance), was the only real bright part of this game.
This Andorra win was the first of five consecutive 3-0 victories in their group. Between March 28th and October 13th England won vs Andorra, won their first competitive game at the then-new Wembley, and then against a competitive Russian side, then beat Estonia home and away, all by three goals to nil. They appeared to be steadying the ship and making a late ploy for qualification when disaster hit.
With England having just two qualification games remaining, they travelled to Russia, arguably their toughest game of the campaign. Things started off positively for the Three Lions with Rooney scoring a quite stunning goal after a half hour, controlling a flicked-on ball on his chest and volleying it past Vladimir Gabulov in the Russian nets.
Rooney turned from hero to villain on the 69th minute when he tracked back and pulled down Konstantin Zyryanov, who had burst into the box. Roman Pavlyuchenko, then of Spartak Moscow, was on hand to tuck the penalty away and put the doubt back in English hearts. Just four minutes later and Russian had taken the lead. A combination of fast-paced keepball by the Russians, limp English defending and another calamitous blunder by Robinson put the hosts ahead, a lead that remained through to the final whistle.
England were in 2nd place in their Group E, but they had a bye whilst Croatia, who had already qualified, Russia and Israel all had matches to play. Macedonia had beaten Croatia while Israel had defeated Russia late on. This meant that going into the final game, the table looked like this:
England were 2nd in the table going into this match and knew that a point should be enough to see them over the finish line, unless a freak goal difference swing was achieved. While Croatia were a tough opponent, McClaren should have been confident going into this match with nearly 90,000 cheering English fans packing out Wembley Stadium.
The flip side of this is that the pressure is ramped up when this many people are venting their frustration towards the team, as was the case when Scott Carson misjudged a long-range shot from Niko Kranjčar, who put the visitors up after eight minutes. This was an international side who had crumbled under the pressure on several points during the campaign – whatever McClaren had been saying to motivate them was obviously not working.
The decision to drop regular goalkeeper Robinson was due to a string of errors for club and country. McClaren had publically backed his goalkeeper for the duration of the campaign, however, a string of blunders in training in the build up to the do-or-die Croatia match forced a change to Carson, the young Aston Villa shot-stopper. This was only his second ever game for England, and quite frankly a disastrous start.
England rallied well after conceding so early and began peppering the Croatian goal with chances of their own, Crouch being a thorn in the side of the defence time and time again. On minute 14, disaster struck for England. A wonderful pass split the England defence, Cole playing Ivica Olić onside as the Hamburg forward rounded Carson and put his nation 2-0 up at Wembley. At the halftime break, England were 2-0 down and Russia were a goal up. If things remained the same, the Three Lions would be spending their summer on their sofas.
Ten minutes after the interval and England were gifted a lifeline. Defoe was fouled, and Frank Lampard did what Frank Lampard does best – he stroked his penalty past the goalkeeper. Shortly after the hour mark and it was 2-2. Beckham, on his 99th England appearance, set up Crouch. His cross was inch perfect as Crouch managed to chest the ball down into his stride and volley it home. English hearts were pounding. A draw was enough, and with such an experienced spine of a team and Croatia already guaranteed top spot, surely they would be able to see it out from here.
With just shy of 15 minutes left to play, disaster struck. Mladen Petrić, then of Borussia Dortmund, picked up the ball some 25 yards from goal. He took advantage of Gerrard’s lazy attempt to close him down and rocket a shot from distance, the ball sailing past Carson and into the net. While Croatian manager Slaven Bilić jumped up and down around his technical area in sheer elation, in the opposite dugout, McClaren looked a broken man.
England had been in a similar position six years previously. On that day, Beckham stood over a free kick in the dying minutes, curling the ball over the wall and beyond the Greek goalkeeper to confirm himself a national hero. Regrettably for England, Beckham could not repeat this feat. Nor could Crouch, Defoe, Lampard, Gerrard or any of the talented players representing their country that night.
The saddest moment occurred at the final whistle. The commentator uttered the words “England are out of the European Championships unless Andorra score against Russia in the next three minutes.” The fate of this once fearsome international side had come down to whether Russia could hold on to their lead against Andorra, a national side so bad that they were somewhat of a laughingstock, a side that conceded 42 goals in qualifying, scoring only twice.
McClaren walked down the tunnel to a string of boos. Even if the Andorrans had scored an unlikely goal then the celebrations would have been muted. One particular moment of this match has haunted McClaren for years. As the rain poured down over the pitch, he picked up an FA branded umbrella and was photographed looked truly miserable as he stood on the touchline, watching the game unfold knowing that failure to qualify would surely spell the end of his time performing his dream job.
The Croatia game was not the reason that England didn’t qualify, at least not entirely. Nor was the return loss to Croatia. Even the Russia defeat the week before was not the be-all and end-all. What truly cost England were the dropped points to Macedonia and Israel. Two relatively easy games that ended up as disappointing draws. If either of those draws had been converted to wins, then England would have been playing European Championship football in the summer of 2008, not Russia.
It is not all the fault of Steve McClaren. These were a group of world class players lining up for England, who failed to live up to expectation. McClaren wasn’t an inspiring manager and it may well be that he couldn’t motivate guys like Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard. He was unlucky to see injury and suspension hit key figures like Rooney, Ferdinand and Terry, but this is football, these things happen.
The tactics can be questioned; the dropping of your number one goalkeeper on the eve of a huge game was bizarre, there are a million reasons that England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. The abuse taken by McClaren was nothing short of brutal. While the players suffered, only to be cheered on as soon as the next campaign kicked off, McClaren’s race was run. He did not manage again in England for several years, and despite winning the Dutch Eredivisie some years later, his respect was in tatters. Until the bizarre spell under Sam Allardyce, Steve McClaren had the unfortunate record of having the shortest tenure ever by an England manager.
McClaren undoubtedly made many mistakes as England boss, but none will come close to that infamous FA umbrella. The campaign was a disaster from start to finish and not one that anyone involved in should look back on with any fondness. The abuse that he suffered was unfair, nobody deserves that, but there is no denying that he is the worst manager England have ever had.