THE Golden generation of English football had failed to deliver at the peak of their powers and were beginning to disband. The squad that the Three Lions took to Euro 2004 is widely regarded as one of the most talented in recent times, including the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney. Despite all of the talent on offer that tournament ultimately ended the same way as most for English supporters: bitter disappointment, as they were knocked out by Portugal on penalties in the quarter-final.
The two World Cups, which followed, saw this squad taken apart due to retirement, only to be replaced by players deemed to have lesser talents than those before them. In 2010 David James, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole, Jamie Carragher, Ledley King and Emile Heskey all remained from that side. However, key figures such as Paul Scholes, Sol Campbell, Gary Neville and Michael Owen were no longer available for the man in charge of the English team.
There may have been a struggle to replace big names and talents such as these, but England’s supporters and media still went into both tournaments with optimism. In 2006 England were put in a group with Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago. Their first match in Germany wasn’t necessarily the most convincing, but it did produce a winning start. England took the lead after just three minutes when a trademark David Beckham free kick into the box took a fatal deflection off the head of Carlos Gamarra, diverting it past goalkeeper Justo Villar after just three minutes. They were unable to extend the lead and Paraguay were nearly able to get a goal of their own, but the Three Lions went on to see out the game.
England started early in their first game, but they had to wait until the very end of their face off with Trinidad and Tobago to break the deadlock. Having been wasteful throughout the match they finally got the ball in the back of the net when Peter Crouch rose up above Brent Sancho to head home in the 83rd minute. Gerrard then sent a superb left footed strike from range into the top corner in injury time to add a bit more shine to the result and put it beyond doubt.
They weren’t able to maintain that perfect start against Sweden. However, the worst thing about this game happened just four minutes in, when Owen ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. What was undoubtedly the best moment of the game also came in the first half. A Swedish header which was attempting to clear the danger bounced just in front of Joe Cole about 30 yards from goal. The Englishman then chested the ball and smashed it on the volley, sending it swerving over the keeper and in off the post before running to the fans and being mobbed by his teammates in celebration. England’s lead lasted just five minutes into the second half, until Marcus Allbäck’s header from a corner was too powerful for Ashley Cole to deal with at the back post.
Sweden gained a stronghold on the game from this moment as they began to pepper Paul Robinson’s goal with threatening efforts, especially from set pieces. It was England who went back in front though, as Cole turned from scorer to provider as his lofted ball to the back post was headed in by Gerrard in the 85th minute. However, calamitous defending from an Erik Edman long throw allowed the ball to bounce through the England box towards Henrik Larsson who stabbed it home just moments before the full time whistle to bring the game level. This may have been an annoyance, but it didn’t stop England topping the group.
Their opponents in the first knockout game were Ecuador, who were beaten 1-0 thanks to a Beckham free kick on the hour mark. This set up a quarter final clash with Portugal and an opportunity to make up for the previous Euros. The main image of this game was Cristiano Ronaldo’s smug face when Wayne Rooney was sent off after losing his cool and stamping on Ricardo Carvalho. This moment of madness had clear significance on the match, with England losing one of their most potent threats and surely someone who would have been a penalty taker in the shootout that came about as a consequence of neither team being able to score in 120 minutes of football. We all know how things tend to go when England are in a penalty shootout: they lose and often emphatically. This time around Owen Hargreaves was the only one out of four English penalty takers to convert, meaning that Portugal went through despite both Hugo Viana and Petit missing.
This disappointment was dwarfed two years later when England failed to even make it to the 2008 Euros under Steve McClaren. This could have resulted in expectations being lowered upon landing in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, but instead it seemed more that England’s players had more to prove to the supporters. With their group consisting of USA, Slovenia and Algeria many expected them to comfortably top the group, but that wasn’t to be the case.
England’s first match was against USA and as had happened in 2006 England got off to a brilliant start. Just four minutes in Heskey turned the ball past a defender on the edge of the box, with Gerrard getting to it first and toe poking it past the onrushing goalkeeper Tim Howard. Then came the moment that many feel has come to define Robert Green’s career. Clint Dempsey had managed to twist his way past Gerrard in the midfield before sending off a weak effort from range with his left foot. It was straight at Green and should have been dealt with easily, but the soft strike somehow managed to sneak its way through his awaiting hands before crossing the line. Green’s desperate lunge to retrieve the ball before it went into the goal was not enough, with that goal robbing England of two points.
This moment also took Green’s starting place in the side away from him, as he was replaced by David James. Despite the new man between the posts having a few shaky moments of his own in the second game against Algeria, he managed to keep a clean sheet. However, so did Algeria’s Raïss M’Bolhi, partly due to a series of wasted chances from England’s attackers, meaning that with two games gone the Three Lions had just two points, with an early exit a serious possibility.
This meant that a win against Slovenia in the final group was vital for England’s progression. In the 23rd minute Jermain Defoe got on the end of James Milner’s cross and managed to beat Samir Handanovic with his first time effort. As is typical of England in major tournaments they were unable to capitalise on the many opportunities they had and gave their opponents a way back into the game. Luckily for them this time Slovenia were unable to capitalise on that. The game ended 1-0 and England finished second in the group behind USA on goal difference.
England subsequently faced their old rivals Germany in the Round of 16. This was always going to be a big test, but it was made even harder when poor defending allowed a long ball from Manuel Neuer to bounce through to Miroslav Klose in England’s box. There was no chance the German was going to miss and he poked it past James to open the scoring. Germany then added another when Lukas Podolski smashed the ball into the far corner from a tight angle. However, England were able to get themselves back into the tie just five minutes after Podolski’s strike when Matthew Upson climbed highest in the opposition box and headed in Gerrard’s cross.
What happened next had a big impact on the match’s result, but arguably made waves across the entire sport of football. The ball fell to Lampard just outside of the box, tempting him to take a first time effort. His strike hit the bar and bounced a considerable distance over the line before curling back and hitting the bar again. Lampard knew it had gone over the line, the commentators did, the fans did, it seems as though it was only the referee and his assistants who didn’t. The goal didn’t stand, which resurrected conversations around the introduction of goal line technology –which was introduced to the Premier League four years later- but also prevented England from completing their comeback. With England chasing the game Germany were able to pick them off on the counter attack, with Thomas Müller scoring twice.
Of all England’s World Cup disappointments, this has to be one of the most painful of those in the modern day. People spent so much time speculating what could have been if only that goal had stood. It just goes to summarise England’s relationship with the World Cup. They so often feel that something great could and should happen, hoping it will come true, but they eventually have to succumb to the realisation that once again it just isn’t going to happen for England at a World Cup.