"It’s The Hope That Kills You" is a MatchPint series looking at England since the turn of the millennium, examining the results before every major tournament that left you thinking that maybe, just maybe, something special could happen.
Argentina 2-3 England - November 2005
Cast your mind back to November 2005 – a bunch of acne-ridden raggamuffins from Sheffield had just shot to No.1 in the charts with their debut single I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor, David Cameron was a mere MP – a chilled out entertainer whose main political interest was downgrading pingers from Class A to Class B – whilst Sven Goran Eriksen’s progress with a talented England squad was grinding to a halt with a World Cup in sight.
Handed an easy qualifying group, English fans endured scratchy victories over Wales and Azerbaijan, before a 4-1 friendly battering at Denmark’s hands and Northern Ireland’s first victory over England since 1973.
Despite the overwhelming positivity surrounding English club football at the time, ropey results coupled with stodgy performances meant the chances of Sven’s men making a splash in Germany that summer were being rapidly downgraded.
Uninspired wins over Austria and Poland secured qualification before the randy old Swede took his charges to Geneva in November for a friendly against an Argentina side littered with world-class talent - Ayala, Zanetti, Samuel, Riquelme, Cambiasso, Tevez and Crespo, to name but a few.
That said, England’s line-up was far from shabby either, blessed with two potential greats up front who looked set to lead the line together for the considerable future.
Little did we know at the time, Michael Owen was in the last months of his prime – aged just 25 and scoring at well over a goal every other game in the early months of his time at Newcastle.
Alongside him, 20-year-old Wayne Rooney had kicked on from his explosive arrival in 2004, refining his game with every passing month but still bursting with the balletic belligerence that made his early career so seductive.
Behind them was a midfield most countries in the world kill for even now – knee cartilage era Ledley King shoehorned in behind three giants of the era in Beckham, Lampard and Gerrrard.
Ronaldinho snagging gold in the 'World's Worst Fitting Suit' contest.
As a trio, they were pure Hollywood. Golden Balls was still a mainstay in Madrid, Gerrard’s career-defining Istanbul heroics were still fresh in the memory, whilst Lampard was well on his way to becoming the greatest goalscoring midfielder* we’ve ever seen.
*I mean proper midfielder.
It wasn’t quite all worldies mind as G. Nev and Ashley Cole were side-lined. With John Terry and Rio Ferdinand holding the fort, intrigue was provided by those on either side of them – some curious dross in the shape of Luke Young, Wayne Bridge and subsequently Paul Konchesky.
In an era before low blocks and defensive forwards, when playing with even one out-and-out holding midfielder was considered a bit fannyish, fans saw the most ludicrously entertaining football match you could wish for. No exaggeration, it was 9000% action.
Argentina made the quickest start with Maxi, Riquelme and Tevez’s waspish movement pressing Paul Robinson into early action, before Michael Owen struck first, heading home from a deft Rooney clip. The linesman’s flag denied him on this opportunity, and soon his opposite number, Crespo, suffered the same fate after, bundling home a set piece, only to be pulled up for a shove.
Rooney delicately dinked over the onrushing Roberto Abbondanzieri but saw the woodwork spoil his good work before Crespo finally opened the scoring – Maxi ghosted past Bridge and fired across goal to find the arch-poacher loitering with intent in the six-yard box.
The lead was short-lived, however, as one of Beckham’s forgotten qualities – his tenacity the air – dragged England back into things. An errant clearance looped up on the edge of the Argie box before captain fantastic leapt higher than everyone, nodding the ball down to Rooney who slotted on the half volley.
Halftime, somewhat bizarrely, brought with it Paul Konchesky and the third Mitchell brother was soon at fault as Argentina took the lead for a second time.
Riquelme, who’d been wreaking increasing havoc between England’s lines, sent over a fine free-kick deep to the back stick. Walter Samuel evaded Konchesky with ease and nutted back across goal unchallenged for 2-1.
Stung into action, Sven removed his defensive shield, switching Joe Cole for King and dropping Gerrard into the middle, having done his bi-annual stint of left flank purgatory. The radical decision to play all his most talented players in their natural positions proved inspired, with England snatching two last gasp goals in a barnstorming finale.
A Beckham free-kick forced a sensational double stop from Abbondanzieri before his opposite Robinson plunged bravely at the feet of net-bothering elf, Javier Saviola. Rooney very nearly scored with one of those f*cking annoying ‘disguised chips’ that he’s still yet to master an entire career later, whilst Lampard offered a sneak peak of his World Cup form, hammering narrowly wide at every possible occasion.
Eventually though, England’s pressure told. Afforded far too much room on the right flank, Stevie G whipped over a menacing cross to the back post his own captain would have stood and admired. With Peter Crouch and Joe Cole occupying the centre halves, Owen was free as a bird to drift in behind them and dab home.
Deep into added time, the game continued its demented acceleration. Something had to give.
A Beckham header from just yards out was somehow clawed off the line before Argentina broke, thrillingly neither team bothering with a midfield by now.
Substitute Julio Cruz drove into the England box only to be halted by a Gerrard lunge from behind bearing distinct overtones of Phil Jones’ rashest work. Referee somehow unmoved and various Argies having a right old huff, the ball was immediately sprayed upfield, finding Joe Cole on the left flank.
He dropped his man with a deliciously easy stepover and floated a ball towards Crouch on the penalty spot. With England’s resident lamppost under close watch, Owen swooped in from nowhere, craning every sinew to wrap his forehead around a header that fizzed through the keeper’s despairing fingers. In just over 40 seconds, the third of three chances to put the game to bed had finally proved decisive.
English jubilation was palpable as those in blue crumped to the ground. In one fell swoop, 18 months of bland indifference had been swept under the carpet. What's more, it felt authentic - a victory born of power, tenacity, stamina and getting quality balls into the mixer. This was an England team capable of outgunning the very best in the business, a team capable of winning the World Cup.
What subsequently followed in Germany was a classic tough luck story - a rich gravy of distinctly English woes that combined to derail our most talented team since 1990.
Sven Goran Eriksen recently went on record saying he thought 2006 was the chance he had as England boss to win something. But his decision to bow out with a flamboyant bang, inexplicably selecting 16-year-old Theo Walcott over Jermaine Defoe and Darren Bent, proved terminal - not just to English hopes, but also Michael Owen’s career at the elite level. Looking back, it’s a national clusterf*ck up there with the The Somme, Windrush and Jeremy Clarkson’s enduring popularity.
This time around both Owen and Rooney suffered our annual metatarsal woes. The former dinged his in December, but a series of failed treatments and rushed returns meant he played just 28 more minutes that season and went into the tournament rustier than the Titanic.
Hollywood hatcheman George Clooney claims another victim.
Rooney, on the other hand, was crocked in a tackle from Chelsea's Paulo Ferreira in the penultimate game of the PL season. Hindsight’s a fine thing but back then we had no real sense of just how long it took Rooney, even at his peak, to find his rhythm following an injury – namely, a f*cking aeon. Ifs, buts and maybes but surely, armed with this knowledge, Sven would have canned his Walcott gamble.
With the young Arsenal winger lightyears away from the required standard and Peter Crouch finding international referees rather less fond of his clambering ways, Sven was forced to play Owen and Rooney, praying they’d offer something useful whilst working towards any kind of fitness and form.
The duo plodded through the opening games before disaster stuck just 51 seconds into the third. Making the simplest of passes against Sweden, Owen’s withered body shattered underneath him.
The damage was an ACL tear, an injury that blighted Captain Charisma until his early retirement with Owen himself since admitting there’s no way he should have even gone to Germany, such was his condition.
The end for Owen.
All hopes were unceremoniously lumped on the chunky frame of Rooney, a man-child increasingly resembling a strawberry – his once pasty face growing ruddier as the summer wore on, the surface beaded with irate seeds of perspiration.
A Beckham free-kick saw England unconvincingly past Ecuador as the Three Lions, struggling for any kind of attacking fluency, found themselves in a quarter-final with their vanquishers from Euro 2004.
After an hour of trudging around up front alone, chasing after his own first touch in 30-degree heat, Rooney’s all too predictable Falling Down moment landed.
An entire tournament of frustration belched out of him as he kindly decided to stamp out a lit cigarette that had landed on Riccy Carvalho’s cock and balls. The referee, unfortunately, viewed such benevolence rather differently.
Despite also losing Beckham to injury just minutes before, the hapless striker’s red card actually injected some sorely absent fire into Sven’s men and England were unlucky to not win the game in normal time.
The farce wasn’t quite complete, however. England deciding to bring on phlegmy full-back Jamie Carragher in the 119th minute, a man with a cool 1 in 155 career strike-rate, to help them lose a shootout that began with Portugal missing TWO of their first three kicks. Struth almighty.
Back home, the knives were soon out and sharper than ever; England branded as nothing more than four decent defenders and a tactically illiterate midfield. But the truth is that England team were briefly something special.
Injuries, luck, the deranged decision to take an utterly unremarkable child to a World Cup and Schteve McClaren’s premature appointment, all ensured that particular side never got close to fulfilling their potential.
This is highlighted when you consider that an England side comprised of G. Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, A.Cole, Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Cole, Rooney, Owen – made it onto the pitch together just twice ever.
But for those fans who remember it, we’ll always have that November night, when the Golden Generation glistened in Geneva.
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