When Roy Keane returned the “shamed man” from the World Cup finals 2002, he knew he was going to be in for a tough time from the country and the media. What he deemed unacceptable behaviour from the FAI, embarrassing treatment, lead him to his decision to fly back to Manchester from Japan. When reflecting on this time in his autobiography, he wrote “Thank God for Manchester United.” Thank God he had someone else to look after him, thank God he had something else to invest his time and energy in to, thank God he had something to take pride in, thank God for Manchester United.
United fans up and down the country, regardless of their feelings towards the England National Team, should be feeling the same way after watching that shambolic performance against Croatia. Thank God we have Manchester United to support.
England will not be travelling the Euro 2008 despite being gifted a result at the weekend by Russia, who lost to Israel. One point at home to Croatia, who had already qualified before last night, was all they needed. Was it going to be tough? Of course. No John Terry, no Wayne Rooney, no Michael Owen and no Rio Ferdinand. It was always going to be a difficult night. Playing on a pitch ripped to bits, thanks to the FA’s embarrassing antics in allowing an NFL game to take place at the National Football Stadium three weeks ago, in the pissing down rain, was never going to help. Does this excuse the slap stick performance England fans were to watch yesterday? Not a chance.
It appears Steve McClaren can’t do right for doing wrong. He opted to drop under fire goalkeeper Paul Robinson, who has looked shaky and made several errors in recent months for club and country, and replace him instead with Liverpool’s Scott Carson, a move the media and fans had been calling for. I watched on in disbelief when Kranjcar’s shot on eight minutes somehow found it’s way in to the back of the net. Surely the wet surface changed the ball’s movement, or perhaps a bobble on the pitch in front of the keeper forced the ball to roll up the keeper’s arms before crossing the line? Replays show that no, nothing changed the flight of the ball, and somehow Carson managed to miss it entirely. Ridiculous. This guy is a professional goalkeeper?
Six minutes later, the score now 2-0, I felt Olic must have been incredibly lucky to see his goal count, when he surely was in an offside position when he received the ball. Again, no, there were no excuses. Olic was in the clear by a good yard or so thanks to Chelsea’s Wayne Bridge playing him onside. Chelsea team mate, Shaun Wright-Phillips, must have thought he had tracked back for long enough, and just stopped running as his opponent broke in to the box, beating England’s poor attempt of an offside trap. Sol Campbell and Joleon Lescott desperately raised their arms to appeal for offside, as Bridge skulked back to the position he should have been standing in to prevent Croatia’s second goal from standing.
Was there a rousing come back? Come on lads, there’s over seventy five minutes to go, let’s make the game ours. Nope, the woeful Gerrard, filling in for John Terry as captain, inspired nothing of the sort, as the England team struggled to defend, pass, tackle and attack. They certainly were good at hoofing the ball up to Crouch though, who even I began to feel sorry for as the game progressed, with this seemingly impossible task put on his shoulders, as he kept heading the ball down to no one, or worse, back to the Croatian defenders.
The performance actually started to get entertaining, it was laughable, with Bridge putting in crosses to the back post which Wright-Phillips wouldn’t meet even if he was twice the size, with Croatian attack after attack, which always looked like nothing, but always nearly amounting to something, with the midfield of Barry-Lampard-Gerrard struggling to keep the possession for more than two passes, and with Crouch hopelessly trying to get on the end of the plentiful long balls and turn it in to even a half chance. It was ridiculous.
The players walked in at half time to deafening boos from the England crowd, I imagine just what they needed to begin to climb the mountain required of them in the second half. Brilliant support England fans, hats off to you. If I’m ever in the business to kill myself, maybe I’ll invite you along to support me!
The second half started off more promising, with more fight from the England players, but then saying that, it wasn’t possible for it to get any worse. Wright-Phillips and Barry made way (brilliant thinking, leave Lampard and Gerrard in midfield. Maybe now this is the time, after years of trying, that the two players will click?) for David Beckham and Jermaine Defoe (again, tactical genius. A man who has been injured playing for a pub team in the US of A for the past few months and a player has scored an impressive three goals in fifteen appearances this season, none of those coming from the nine league outings he’s had so far. Wonderful).
Still, England plodded on, and finally they were in luck when the Croatian defender made the costly mistake of tugging Defoe’s shirt ever so slightly, leaving the Tottenham man on the deck. Penalty. Now was Fat Frank’s time to redeem himself, show the fans who boo him every time he pulls on the shirt that he’s still got it. God knows what was running through his mind when he ran up to take that penalty. “Fuck the lot of you” should be the answer. He sent the keeper the wrong way and turned to the crowd, raising his arms in the air, geeing them up, trying to make them believe. And the fickle fans responded. I suppose Lampard isn’t that bad afterall?
The commentators were excited beyond belief every time Beckham touched the ball, and it was climax time when a free kick came his way. Out for a corner, can it get any better than this? “David Beckham stepping up to take the free kick…David Beckham is running over to take the corner.” Is this the same David Beckham who was slated for his performance in the friendly on Friday, who most England fans grumble about still retaining a place in the squad after leaving European football for the bright lights and dosh of LA. You’d never have known.
It was Beckham’s magical right foot which created England’s second, as he played the ball perfectly in to Crouch. He looked to have screwed up the chance when he tried to control the ball on his chest, but managed to pull the trigger and fire the ball in to the back of the net. Now we remember that it was “past it” David Beckham who created the only goal England scored against the lowly Austria a few days previously. What a chore this selective memory is for our nation.
However, it wasn’t to be. The “England must qualify” turned in to “England have not qualified” when the final whistle blew, after Croatia had taken the rightful lead thirteen minutes from time. “This is one of the worst moment’s in England’s history,” Alan Hansen proclaimed. He must be talking about footballing history, right? Or is that how far we’ve got now with our relationship with the national team? The sheer arrogance of this country, presuming we must qualify, particularly in a piss easy group, then failing, deems what happened last night a national tragedy. Insane.
So who will be blamed? Steve McClaren? He will be the main target of abuse I suppose. I can only imagine what the mugs calling Alan Green on 606 had to say about McClaren. Whilst I will make no excuses for the man who helped Ferguson win the Treble in his first season at United, it would be lunacy to blame this shambles of a team entirely on him. He is at fault, certainly, and he is likely to lose his job because of it. Chopping and changing the tactics, dropping and starting players, talking the talk in the press only to produce nothing of the performance he promised. He will be slaughtered for it all. Why not rely on the experience of David James for such an important game, instead of entrusting such an important role to an unproven youngster? Why not play Beckham from the start considering he is the only player in the team who can occasionally get a cross or corner past the first man instead of SWP the midget who tries to take on two defenders at a time and more often than not fails? Why play a five man midfield when two of the three central midfielders have proven countless times they cannot play together? Why leave those two players on the field for the second half? Why play a lone striker who will only encourage hoofed balls up to a freakish giant who can’t head a ball? Why why why? Too many questions that McClaren cannot answer and which will cost the man his job. As I type, he is sat in an emergency board meeting with the FA, being told to jog on. What delights do the FA have in store for us now? Steve Bruce possibly? Paul Jewell? Graeme Souness?
Who else can this loss be attributed to? Scott Carson, the inexperienced keeper who proved to be entirely out of his depth. He made a couple of good saves in the ninety minute period, but these count for nothing after the horrendous mistake which cost England the first goal. There is no excuse for not saving a shot like that. At the very least, Carson just had to put his body behind the ball and let it rebound off him, at best, he should have collected the shot easily. To make such a hash of it was amateur, and when United’s Ben Foster returns from injury in the next couple of months, should see to it that Carson isn’t presented with an opportunity to screw up so badly for England in the future.
Whilst we’re playing the blame game, let’s not stop there, let’s stick it to the defence, who were truly abysmal. It was the manager’s mistake to entrust such an inexperienced player with the goalkeeper’s position in a vital game, but there can be no excuses made for the dreadful defence who should have been protecting the lad. It’s hard to identify the worst player, probably Wayne Bridge, followed closely by City’s Micah Richards. They were embarrassingly poor, caught ball watching and in possession time and time again. At least Richards didn’t give up the fight, but Bridge had arguably the worst game of his career last night. Lescott wasn’t much better than the pair of them, and after being exposed in the Russia game, I’m surprised he was given another chance in such an important match. Campbell wasn’t drastically better, but he put in one solid, brave challenge in the six yard box which kept England in the game for longer than they deserved.
The midfield were better than the England defence, but still miles off the mark of what should be expected from an international team on an occasion such as last night. Gareth Barry was out of his depth, and whilst McClaren has previously been applauded for going for an in form player, rather than a big name, it proved a failed gamble last night. Gerrard and Lampard were as bad as each other, but with Lampard absent for large spells of the game, not touching the ball for minutes at a time (which should be worrying when considering he plays in the centre of the park), Gerrard came off worse. Sloppy passes, losing out on tackles, shouting and swearing at the ref (funny that no one picked up on Gerrard’s “chav” behaviour Rooney is chastised for whenever he represents his country!) and his only saving grace was a great tackle at a stretch to prevent the Croatians breaking in scary numbers. Joe Cole was probably the most dangerous looking player on the field, and somehow managed several times to squeeze himself and the ball between two defenders, but no end product meant it counted for nothing. Shaun Wright-Phillips contributed nothing, other than failure to mark for the second goal, and a tame shot at the keeper, from one of England’s few clear cut chances.
Let’s be honest, the Croatians deserved every one of their three goals, and should have had a few more on top. England needed a good kick up the arse, and if the humiliation of not making it through the easiest group in the competition (whatever Bilic has to say!) doesn’t do it, then nothing will. Qualifying would have given nothing positive to this nation’s football team, as they would have continued to arrogantly believe they were owed a place.
So now the game is over, England are out, and we are free to speculate what might have been. Would it have made more sense to slot Wesley Brown in at right back, who is having a good season for United playing that very position week in week out, and play Richards in the centre alongside Campbell? Would playing Hargreaves ahead of Barry alongside Gerrard (or possibly Lampard) not have been the wisest option, considering Hargreaves is all too often the best player on the park when he plays for the Champions? Would we have seen a different result? Impossible to know, but quite frankly, I’m pleased that no United players were associated with that dreadful, gutless, pathetic performance.
Next summer when the Euros are being played and you’re wearing your Portugal shirt with pride, watching some other country being crowned the best in Europe, with no Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, Owen Hargreaves, Ben Foster or Wesley Brown in site, remember it could be worse, England could be the best shot you’d ever have of seeing a team you support win something. Thank God for Manchester United.