IN the post-Euro 1996 Three Lions universe, England as a national side was beginning to see the fruition of long held youth development as the Class of 1992 at Manchester United started to rule the roost on the domestic front, winning multiple Premier League titles under Alex Ferguson’s stewardship.
The dream and hope of a nation – which saw penalty shoot-out heartache at Wembley versus the old enemy Germany in 1996 – was that this new breed of young footballers could gel together and forge a lasting impression on the international stage. This clamour for victory and in hindsight, over-eagerness of media members led to the group of Manchester United youngsters, along with the best of the nation from Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Steven Gerrard being christened the Golden Generation.
The Golden Generation only came into being for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002, but some members were present for the French edition of the World Cup in 1998. Under the guidance of Glenn Hoddle; England became a favourite of many pundits to do well in the tournament, a favourable draw and a squad, which had mainstays – Alan Shearer, Tony Adams, Paul Ince – as well as the wild card selections such as David Beckham and Michael Owen.
Yet the build-up to the tournament had concentrated on Glenn Hoddle choosing to not select Paul Gascoigne, amongst others; a poorly organised mess. Fortunately it did not totally backfire on the pitch, an easy 2-0 opening victory over Tunisia was rounded off by a wonderful Paul Scholes goal.
Next was Romania; a team themselves full of wonderful players who played in top leagues and were at the end of the last years of great stalwarts such as Gheorghe Hagi and Gigi Popescu; in a tight affair a late Dan Petrescu goal denied England an invaluable point.
The final group encounter versus Colombia saw Hoddle ring the changes in need for a victory to secure qualification albeit likely as runner-up behind the Romanians. David Beckham started and his influence and dead-eye at set pieces featured prominently as a trademark free-kick gave the red shirted England a 2-0 lead, this followed a piledriver of a strike by Darren Anderton who was healthy and playing well.
The unity of the side was never in doubt with the mix of Batty and Ince surrounded by young terriers like Beckham and Scholes, Hoddle employed a 3-5-2 formation that was paying dividends and England were ready for the knockout encounter versus Argentina.
You could write a thousand words on this match itself; a game forever remembered as the game David Beckham got sent off and helped England lose a foothold in the game. Up to his dismissal early in the 2nd half of normal time, the tie had been a classic as Gabriel Batistuta and Alan Shearer traded penalties, then England took the lead with the stunning solo effort by Michael Owen as he ran head first at the Argentinian defence by himself giving England this new dawn of hope. On the stroke of half-time, Argentina equalised with a cleverly orchestrated free-kick that fooled the English defence.
The game was finally poised at 2-2, then the red mist descended upon Beckham leaving his teammates with a mountain to climb. England defended stoically as Argentina could not find the edge, and England even thought they had won the tie with a Sol Campbell goal ruled out for a foul by Alan Shearer. The football gods were not smiling on England as the inevitable exit by penalty shoot-out followed with David Batty being the unlucky soul on this occasion.For this group of players it was a chance gone, the hope was lost again. Well for another four years at least.
Come 2002, the Golden Generation were firmly entrenched within the squad holding fort in terms of numbers with the core of members coming from Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Now under the stewardship of Sven-Goran Eriksson there was a renewed belief in this group following the convincing 5-1 qualifying victory in Munich against Germany. There was something incredibly exotic about the 2002 edition of the World Cup with it taking place in the Far East; this meant early kick offs before work and for one player in particular the opportunity to put to rest the demons of four years before.
David Beckham’s road to redemption had begun once Peter Taylor gave him the captaincy; this was seen by many as a risk but in hindsight, it was the making of the man and the player. He became the man to put the team on his back, never more so than in the final qualifying game at home to Greece at Old Trafford when he dragged a team from a 2-0 deficit and covered every blade of the Manchester pitch and willed the team to an important point culminating in his iconic last minute free-kick.
The draw in Japan and South Korea put us in a group with Sweden, the old enemy Argentina and Nigeria. England got two points from drawers against the Scandinavians and Africans; these sandwiched the eagerly anticipated encounter from St. Etienne, with Beckham against Argentina. Featuring the world’s greatest referee Pierluigi Collina, the game was the marquee match-up of the group stages and in an admittedly cagey affair, the outcome was settled by a controversial moment.
Michael Owen was fouled in the box, upended by now Tottenham Hotspur manager, Mauricio Pochettino. Replays suggested that Owen had simulated the contact and this led to the award of a penalty kick by the Italian referee. Up stepped David Beckham, the stage was set for him to right those wrongs from four years previously. He confidently converted the kick and in his reaction was four years of heartache and despair unleashed, similar to that of Stuart Pearce in Euro’96.
England faced Denmark in the first knockout stage and they coolly dispatched another Scandinavian threat thanks to a dominant first half performance with three goals from Ferdinand, Owen and Emile Heskey.
In the quarter final was the task of facing Brazil the favourites of the tournament with such names as Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu. This was a meeting of two good teams but unfortunately; it will be remembered for an error by one player.
In the hot heat of Shizuoka, England more than held there own using diligent defence with marshalling of the midfield to take a one nil lead thanks to Michael Owen scoring his second goal of the tournament. Then before half time, England lost concentration and conceded to Rivaldo – this was a change of momentum from which England struggled to come back from. This was further complicated by another major error in judgment by their goalkeeper David Seaman.
A free-kick from the far touchline was taken by Ronaldinho, aiming for the middle of the penalty area the ball took a misdirected flight and fortuitously was aiming for the far post of England’s goal. A mixture of surprise and confusion led to Seaman losing the ball in flight and he ended up falling backwards into his net with the ball nestling next to him. Brazil had the 2-1 lead their play did not deserve and despite the goalscorer being dismissed seven minutes later England could not break down the resolute Samba defence.
Again, the Golden generation had missed their chance to make some noise on the world stage owing to a collection of basic errors and lack of concentration in the vital moments required. This was emblematic of England’s psyche that would come to epitomise them in major tournaments for years to come – a collection of individuals who failed to justify their supreme talent.