England’s lost decade

At Euro 2004, Wayne Rooney touched fleeting, sensational greatness. Since then, England fans have had little to celebrate

Fri, Jun 6, 2014, 14:39

The first international tournament I covered was the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. I followed the Irish team and I didn’t see any England games. Neither did I see many England fans. The Japanese part of that World Cup vanished into the vastness of the cities and somebody who didn’t know there was a World Cup on would never have noticed any difference.

By the time Euro 2004 came around I was keen to see an England game and perhaps witness their national agony up close. Their first match promised everything I was looking for: a potential classic against the holders, France, at Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz.

The match was on a Sunday evening and the England fans had arrived in strength on the Friday night. All weekend tens of thousands of them swarmed in the old centre of Lisbon. They took over Rossio Square and hung up their banners on jerry-built clotheslines. When you walked on to the square you saw an abundance of flapping white cotton bedsheets emblazoned with red crosses, as though a Crusader army had paused to do its laundry.

The Crusaders lazed in the sunshine, paddled in the fountains, drank gigantic quantities of cheap Portuguese beer, and with prodigious energy belted out their war songs. “Keep St George in my heart, keep me English! Keep St George in my heart, I pray! Keep St George in my heart, keep me English! Keep me English till my dying day! No Surrender, No Surrender, No Surrender to the IRA! (SCUM!) No Surrender, No Surrender, No Surrender to the IRA!”

In 2004, many still thought of England fans on tour as something like marauding Crusaders, bent on pillage and chaos. The last time they had gathered in such numbers on mainland Europe had been four years earlier in Belgium, and there had been rioting, water cannon and hundreds of arrests at Charleroi after the match against Germany. Two years before that, during the 1998 World Cup, there had been running battles in the streets of Marseille.

Like many who grew up in Ireland in the 1980s, news reports of England’s hooligan shame were a staple of my youth. The contrast between the aggression of their fans and the friendliness of ours was a source of smug fascination that spoke for the superiority of our people. Here at Rossio were the monsters that had stalked my imagination. I was primed for danger and, if I’m honest, rather hopeful of seeing some rioting.

But over the course of that sunny weekend, it became clear that unless you were the type to take umbrage at street drinking or politically incorrect song lyrics, these England fans were not doing anything more offensive than littering.

On the Saturday I went around the crowd doing vox pops for Newstalk radio. A decade on, two of these remain in my mind. There was a big-bellied man who said “Dublin radio? We went over there and we f**ked your ground to shit!” Another fan in his late 50s sang into my microphone “When I was young, I had no sense, I bought a flute, for 50 pence. The only tune, that I could play, was F**k the Pope and the IRA!”

They stick in my memory because they were the only ones. The England fans were harmlessly and joyfully vainglorious, surfing a wave of pre-tournament euphoria and Super Bock beer. They would shout out innocent, deluded things like “Frank Lampard is the best attacking midfielder in this tournament!” They sang the song about Wayne Rooney being “the White Pele”.

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When I got to the Luz on Sunday evening I could see that three-quarters of the giant red bowl was already English. Countless flags and banners from places in England you’ve never heard of. These are the people who travel to football matches more than anyone else in the world.

Unfortunately they had a band, which kept prompting them to hum along to the theme from The Great Escape. It’s a bad song for football – Ten German Bombers was only marginally more offensive and worked much better as a triumphalistic chorus.

Despite their warlike bombast, the English were scared of France, with good reason. The defence of Barthez, Thuram, Silvestre, Gallas and Lizarazu had not conceded a goal for more than 1,000 minutes. Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires were at the heart of Arsenal’s Invincibles. The captain was Zinedine Zidane, still the best player in the world. Thierry Henry had just completed his best season for Arsenal and he was the player England feared most.

But the Henry who turned up that night wasn’t much like the Arsenal guy. Marshalled by the graceful touches of Zidane, France were playing possession football in England’s half, but with the English players locked in a compact defensive formation, there was no space for Henry. He flitted on the periphery in white boots that gave his foot movements a slightly clownish dimension. Several times he got the ball and performed an extravagant piece of skill that got him absolutely nowhere.

We know now that there had always been a tense on-field dynamic between himself and Zidane: Zidane created only one goal for Henry in the 55 internationals they played together. The English fans sensed his anxiety and baited him. “Thierry Henry, you’re having a laugh! Thierry Henry, you’re having a laugh!” Not an inspired piece of terrace banter, but it looked as though it was having the desired effect.

Maybe it was to the wilting Henry’s relief that he didn’t remain the centre of attention for long. Because everybody had started to notice that at the other end of the field, Wayne Rooney was playing one of the greatest games any of us had ever seen.

He wasn’t tall, but with his barrel chest and thick legs he seemed stronger than the men he was up against. He was certainly more aggressive. A little pale bull, he hurled himself at the toughest French players. He wrestled Vieira. He left his studs in on Makelele. He swatted Silvestre aside with a flick of the shoulders. He screamed at a linesman over a decision that was obviously correct. Mixed with the aggression was uncanny, casual brilliance. He nutmegged Pires. He spun away from Zidane. It was ridiculous. The English fans were in love.

On 72 minutes, with England leading 1-0, Rooney and Thuram tussled for the ball on half-way. Rooney flicked the ball over Thuram’s head and broke away. He didn’t hesitate, he didn’t look around for support, he just tore directly towards the French goal. Thuram and Makelele chased in vain. Silvestre, hopelessly exposed, chopped Rooney down as he burst past on the outside. Penalty to England.

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I remember staring around the bowl at the ecstatic England fans, who were already celebrating as though they had scored. They were celebrating something bigger than a goal. They could see that the French could not handle the pace, power and daring of Rooney. England at last had an unanswerable genius, a Zidane. The English Zidane had made the French one look like a wraith. He had made Henry look like an impostor. He was the dream of English football made flesh. The English were an accursed tribe that had wandered in football’s wilderness for nearly 40 years and now they had found their Moses.

Then Beckham missed the penalty and, four minutes later, Sven-Göran Eriksson made one of his rare decisions. England’s manager had a lot of experience at protecting leads. Experience told him he needed more experience on the field. Experience told him that he should replace the undisciplined 18-year- old for the last 15 minutes. It takes years of experience to persuade a man to ignore the evidence of his own eyes.

With Rooney substituted, France knew they no longer had to worry about defending. Now England cowered before their superior skills. On 90 minutes, Zidane smashed in a beautiful free kick.

On 93 minutes, Gerrard played a blind back pass to Henry, who exultantly somersaulted over James for a penalty. Zidane stooped to vomit, then buried the shot into the same bottom corner to complete a stunning French victory.

The defeat was so sickening for the English that I thought there might be trouble, but the only hint of unpleasantness I saw in Lisbon that night was when a middle-aged Englishman in glasses shouted after a French couple who had walked past: “You just don’t have the balls to stand and fight!” The French couple didn’t look back and the English warrior sheepishly turned back to his group and his beer. It was a farcical parody of the hooliganism we had been conditioned to expect.

The dream of Rooney lasted two and a bit more games. On the Thursday, he scored twice against Switzerland. On the following Monday, I went back to the Luz to see him destroy Croatia. He was playing with an unbelievable swagger and arrogance that suggested he was now sure he was the best player at Euro 2004. His first goal that night was a bullet shot from 25 yards. His second was accompanied by a great rolling roar as he burst through the line of the Croatian defence, the English rising to acclaim what they knew with perfect certainty would be a goal.

On the Friday, he chased a ball into Portugal’s penalty area and sprawled to the ground with a broken foot. For the English, this was about the cruellest intervention of blind chance since King Harold looked into the sky at Hastings. They knew that without Rooney they were doomed, and the next day they flew home.

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Afterwards, the press would rave about the fearlessness of youth, which might be an empty cliche. What we can say is that the quality that stood out about Rooney’s play against France was its terrifying directness. That French defence had faced down the best forwards in the world, but they’d never come up against anyone quite like this.

That sounds like another empty cliche, but it’s true. It was Rooney’s first tournament match. He had no idea how you were supposed to play. He was just doing whatever came into his head. The French couldn’t read it.

What came into Rooney’s head was not always the right idea. At one point in the second half, Rooney miscontrolled and Lilian Thuram closed in to snatch the ball away. Rooney battered Thuram to the ground. The English fans roared ecstatically. On the replay, you could see that Rooney had smashed his forearm into Thuram’s jaw. He should have been sent off. If he did the same thing today, people would condemn his stupidity. That night at the Luz, everyone was stunned by his sheer balls. An 18-year-old doing that to Thuram!

Looking back at his performance against France a decade on, the imperfections are obvious. Many of the touches are too heavy, the passes too risky, the decisions almost uniformly impetuous. Even if Rooney had the engine to play a match like that today, he would be too streetwise to do so. That night he was playing a thrillingly raw, basic, spontaneous kind of football that is almost never seen at an international tournament.

Euro 2004 was not only the peak of Rooney’s international career. It was the peak for England supporters too. Since then every England tournament has been another sorry chapter in a small, sour story of decline.

In 2006, the English went to the World Cup in numbers even greater than had gone to Portugal. This was the peak of the credit boom and more than 50,000 England fans arrived in Germany, most knowing they had no chance of getting into a game, but prepared to pay €500 to do so. They crowded the squares in Frankfurt, Cologne, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Gelsenkirchen. They kicked footballs into the air, sweated into their polyester, bellowed offensive songs about the Germans and sent inflatable Spitfires soaring over the neat ranks of green-uniformed police. They were disgusting.

Every German I spoke to loved them. They thought: this is what the World Cup is all about.

They wanted another Rooney glory show but this time they weren’t going to get it. He had broken his foot again two months before the World Cup, and, rushed back into the team, pasty and out of condition, he let them down. Like Zidane in 1998, he was sent off for stamping on a prone opponent. Unlike Zidane, he would get no shot at redemption.

The failure of that team in 2006 and the failure to qualify for the European Championships in 2008 seemed to break something in the England fans. They could no longer bring themselves to believe in the team. Only a few thousand went to watch Fabio Capello’s jaded side in South Africa in 2010. Rooney was a joke. The fact that he had been injured again in the lead-up to the tournament could not explain how bad he was.

Watching the ball bounce off his sluggish body as England were destroyed by Germany in Bloemfontein, it was difficult to believe this was once the young god of the Luz. Even fewer English travelled to Euro 2012, when Rooney was suspended for the first two matches and a mediocre cog in a conservative England side thereafter.

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Two things strike me about watching England at their last four tournaments. The first is that the cautious, defensive football they have played is completely at odds with their fans’ thirst for glory.

The second is that the peak moment for the England supporters in the past 10 years was the fleeting exhilaration of those few days 10 years ago when they thought Wayne Rooney was about to win them Euro 2004.

And, perhaps strangely, the memory of that exhilaration lasts after the bitterness of the ultimate defeat has faded. If they really had gone on to win it, the memories could hardly have been much better.

There’s a lesson there for any England manager on the way to an international tournament. Danny Blanchflower was right: the game is about glory, about doing things in style. That’s how you give your supporters those fleeting moments of – doubtless delusional – happiness, when they can believe that the team is about to do something great. Those are the moments they will remember. Whether the team really does go on to do something great is almost an afterthought. Winning doesn’t really matter.

The problem, of course, is that for the manager, winning is all that matters. While fans crave a team that will show them a good time, Roy Hodgson is solemnly preparing for the defining days of his career. From his point of view, the stakes look rather high. There are a thousand different ways he could end up being humiliated. Hodgson’s appetite for risk is probably close to nil.

But the truth is that the real risk is in not taking any risks. England could try to win the World Cup playing cautious football in two banks of four, seeking to pick their opponent off. They will get picked off more often than they pick the opponent off, and they will go home having bored their supporters. And boredom is the thing they can never really forgive.

So England might as well go down swinging. It probably won’t be Rooney landing the big punches this time. But maybe it could be Sterling, or Barkley, or Sturridge. Hodgson should prioritise talent over experience, and make sure the talent is on the field when it matters. And if his team goes down trying to do something, it will feel better than what happened in the last three tournaments, when they went down anyway, having tried to do nothing.

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