What an autumn it was to be an England fan in 2001.
In a difficult World Cup qualification group, it looked inevitable that we’d be headed for a play-off at best after losing our first match to our oldest enemy, Germany, in the very last game played at the old Wembley - with poor old Kevin Keegan resigning in the aftermath.
But in came Sven - and it cannot be overstated what a thrill it was at the time to have a foreign coach, with all the promise of exciting, tactically-advanced football with our golden generation of players. On 1 September 2001, we gained swift revenge against the Germans, humbling them 5-1 in Munich.
But we still needed to close it out to qualify, and it looked like we’d buggered it when, just over a month later, we found ourselves 2-1 down against Greece at Old Trafford in injury time. With Germany being held to an improbable draw by Finland, we just needed one goal to avoid a tricky-looking play-off against Ukraine.
Step forward, on this day, 16 years ago, Mr Goldenballs himself, Mr David Beckham.
I’m getting goosebumps just watching it back. Our university common room was packed to the rafters, people hanging off posts to try and get a glimpse of the TV, with all of us getting ever more desperate as the minutes ticked by.
When the goal went in, we went absolutely ballistic. Total bedlam. Unabashed joy was unleashed. We were headed for the World Cup and no one was gonna stop us.
Compare that to last night, when England, 16 years on, qualified for the World Cup again.
This is a genuine conversation I had on WhatsApp about this
Frankly, this sums up the nation’s feelings about the England team these days. As they huffed and puffed, once again, to an entirely predictable, barely-deserved last minute winner to book their place at Russia 2018, people didn’t even know they were playing. And even if they did, would they even bother to watch?
In fact, do you even need to watch? England are so predictable that another mate sent this, with 25 minutes to go:
Well whaddaya know.
It’s almost perfect timing that, the morning after such a tedious performance, I discovered that it was the anniversary of Becks’ rocket. What a contrast.
And it occurred to me that, really, there’s not been such a joyous moment as an England fan since that day in Manchester all those years ago.
The World Cup that followed was quite enjoyable and Mickey Owen’s goal against Brazil in the quarters gave us brief hope, but we wilted in the Shizuoka sun as Ronaldinho scored that outrageous free-kick past David Seaman.
Euro 2004 was fun, with a decent performance against France ruined by two injury time shockers; then we all got quite excited about a young Wayne Rooney banging a couple in against Ukraine. But then, of course, we lost on penalties to Portugal - on my graduation day. Thanks England.
I spent a week in Germany for the 2006 World Cup where we were - by some distance - the most atrocious team in the tournament to watch, so much so that we practically apologised to every other fan we met out there, whilst drowning our sorrows with delicious German beer.
Euro 2008? Yeah, we didn’t even make it to that one.
The 2010 World Cup featured the dullest game I’ve ever seen - and I speak as a Leyton Orient season ticket holder of 22 years - when we drew 0-0 with Algeria, before we were utterly taken apart - Lampard goal notwithstanding - by a rampant Germany.
2012 Euros: a brief flicker of excitement with Carroll’s towering header and Welbeck’s flick before - of course - penalties.
2014 World Cup: the most exciting it got was Raheem Sterling’s ‘goal’ against Italy - you know, the one that didn’t actually go in…
And then, the nadir. The Iceland match. The worst England performance I have ever seen in my entire life. Where a team of footballers that must be, surely, pretty good at football, forgot how to play football.
So, the question: will I ever experience true joy as an England fan ever again?
Frankly, I just can’t see it.
We still don’t learn. I lost count of the number of times during qualification where it was said that ‘all that matters is getting the three points’. NO. NO, THAT IS NOT ALL THAT MATTERS. Qualification is the ideal time to try new things in a game that is actually competitive (friendlies these days are actively worse than useless, they give you false readings) to see if you can find a new system, a new combination, that will ultimately be better than what you had before. Lose a couple of matches and you can still qualify. One step back, two steps forward. Even if you don’t qualify because your form dips while you bed in a new way of playing, who really cares? I’d take a non-qualification and then a great tournament performance in the next one any day of the week. It’s better than consistent mediocrity. We always qualify because we don’t take any risks, but because we don’t take any risks, we always fail at the tournament. What’s the point?
We don’t even try and play exciting football. As Barney Ronay excellently writes in The Guardian, “The challenge now for Gareth Southgate is not to try to reach the World Cup Final. It is to produce a team that people actually want to watch.” Would any England fan complain if we were like Chile in 2014, lighting up the tournament briefly but memorably? No, of course not. We almost did it in the same tournament when Roy Hodgson put out an unexpectedly attacking team against Italy, but he soon retreated into his shell as we surrendered against Uruguay.
If we’re not bothered about playing exciting football but want to win, we don’t even learn our lessons there. Iceland in 2016 were the perfect example of a team of limited players, but players who were all delighted to be there, and knew exactly what they had to do in a system that acknowleged their limitations and played to their strengths. Greece won the Euros in 2004 doing exactly the same. Portugal did it in 2016, albeit with one talisman (Wales reached the semis with a similar plan). Do any of this current England team really want to be there? Probably not, and who can blame them, given that their club football now gives them the peaks in their careers and all they get is the English press giving them abuse. But what if you picked a load of Championship players, for whom playing for England would be the pinnacle of their lives? They’d not be as gifted individually, but they might just play as a better team. Sure, it might not work, but what’s the alternative, another 16 years of this?
The issue of Premier League clubs hoarding young talent is for another argument, but regardless, we have, in theory, some players that should produce better than this. Watching England shouldn’t be this bad.
Do you have any better ideas? Send ‘em our way and cc in the FA if you could be so kind.
Gareth Southgate seems like a nice guy, but I can’t help but fear it’s gonna be déjà vu yet again next summer. Just one moment of joy, that’s all I ask lads. Just one.