"It’s The Hope That Kills You" is a MatchPint series looking at England since the turn of the Millenium, examining the results before every major tournament that left you thinking that maybe, just maybe, something special could happen.
Netherlands 2-2 England - August 2009
“A beautiful challenge.” That was how Fabio Capello described his appointment as England manager, days after Schteve McClaren’s wet flannels had been dumped out of qualifying for Euro 2008 by Croatia.
Playing 4-1-4-1 at home with Crouchy up top on his own, it’s still too cringeworthy to confront.
That result embarrassed the nation, and condemned poor old Schteve to wander the Earth undercover as a Dutchman in search of a new contract. Don Fabio came in with a reputation as a disciplinarian, and a champion, who had won leagues with every club he had managed - AC Milan, Roma, Juventus and Real Madrid.
The beautiful challenge, his first in international footie, was to convert England’s on-paper superiority into on-field results. On the eve of the 2009/10 World Cup season, there was no doubt that Postman Pat’s doppelganger was beginning to deliver the goods.
In Capello’s first seven competitive games in charge, England had scored a mental 26 goals, conceding only 4. Going into a big pre-season test away to the Netherlands, though it was only a friendly, was a chance to prove how far the team had risen from the rubble, and how close they were to competing with other great European countries.
McClaren’s England team had often proven one-dimensional in attack, but now Capello had us goaling it from all over the pitch in qualifying.
While Two-Metre Peter continued to pop up with the odd un-defendable header, goals from such improbable sources as Jenas, Wright-Phillips, Ferdinand, Garry Barry, Matty Upson and even Wes Brown tell the story of a more creative side, learning to build pressure in possession, take advantage of momentum, and not just lob it at Crouch.
This free-flowing approach was fertile ground for England’s very own Mr Potato Head. Rooney flourished for England as he chipped in with more braces than a Year 11 disco, clocking up 10 goals in 8 games.
Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea had all reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2009, meaning barrel loads massive-game experience for the likes of Gibbs, Walcott, Terry, Cashley, Lamps, Ferdinand, Carrick and Wazza. That competition was also remarkable for Liverpool’s 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid; and although Barcelona won the jug, things were looking peachy for English football.
Progress under Capello was evident: England had already avenged their Croatian nightmare with a cathartic 4-1 victory in Zagreb.
The only blots on Don Fabio’s copybook so far were friendly defeats to European champions, Spain, and good team, France. A slightly dodgy inability to keep clean sheets in comfortable wins over Belarus and Kazakhstan could be overlooked in all the excitement.
And so in August of 2009, just ten months before the first Jabulani was scorched into orbit in anger, England, Europe’s highest-scoring international team, arrived in Amsterdam in the highest of spirits.
Bert van Marwijk’s boys were in pretty good nick themselves, having already booked their tickets to the World Cup by winning every qualifying game.
Boasting the attacking talents of Rafa Van der Vaart, Wes Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie in their pomp, the Dutch were worthy opponents for any team looking to make a serious impact in South Africa.
The game began with a minute’s applause for the recently departed Bobby Robson, but England’s fans soon fell silent as the Netherlands grabbed an early goal, thanks to a schoolboy error from Rio of all people.
“Just roll it slowly across your own box without looking up,” said no goalkeeper ever, as Dirk Kuyt gratefully pounced, mugged Rob Green off TWICE and found the net despite a dutiful last-ditch block from John Terry’s right plum. As we'll find out later, JT’s goolies would sadly go on to make a more decisive intervention in England’s World Cup preparations.
England were 2-0 down before half-time, another howler from another unusual suspect; this time Barry with the Very Bad Idea. “Just play it into Robben’s path in the middle of the pitch,” thought the Villa man, “what could possibly go wrong?” Spoiler alert: Robben, somewhat preciently, found the keeper's trailing leg when one on one and Rafa VdV rollocked home the rebound.
Capello had some tough decisions to make at half time. David Beckham was one of Don Fabio’s most trusted foot soldiers, ever since the laser-footed simpleton had won him La Liga against all odds in 2007. But, by now England’s most-capped outfield player had long been an ageing if effective set-piece talisman, and he was duly hooked at the break.
In all Capello made three changes at the interval, sending on Defoe, Wright-Phillips and Carrick for Heskey, Becks and Barry.
Four minutes after the restart, one of the substitutes scores one of those goals that looks better with every replay. Jermain Defoe reacts quicker than everyone to a looping sliced scissor-kick from Lampsy. Touch One initiates warp speed; Touch Two commits both keeper and last defender; Touch Three tucks it in off the upright before either keeper or defender comprehend Touch Two.
Let’s imagine what would have happened had the man Jermain came on for, Emile Ivanhoe Heskey, received that hopeful pass. Touch One: trademark header into space; Touch Two: off-balance header out wide; Touch Three: sprawling face-plant; opposition throw.
All in all, a decent substitution.
Another inspired sub provided the assist for Defoe’s equaliser. James Milner, having stoically won a 50/50 challenge with his face, drilled a truly novel cross in. For the first time in 185 years, it came from the left wing, via the left winger’s left peg.
England dominated the second half and our 4th best-ever Cole – Carlton – even came close to snatching a winner. What a time to be alive.
Although only a friendly, and despite not actually winning, the all-round feeling was that we would have, barring a couple of uncharacteristic blunders from otherwise super-reliable players.
"These were just two silly mistakes," gurgled Capello. "I was not angry about them because I can accept they were freakish.
"I was really calm at half-time, really calm," he said."You have to understand what you have to do. It is very important psychologically for the players to understand if the manager has confidence that they can recover the result."
Finally, it seemed, we had a proper football manager in the dugout, not a fan (Venables, Keegan); an alien (Eriksson, McClaren); or both (Gloddle.) For the first time in a long time, England looked smart.
No longer relying on the basic problems caused by Crouch’s height, Heskey’s heft, and Beckham’s set-pieces, England had proven clever enough to figure the Dutch defence out.
As it turned out, the men in orange were in the middle of a 25-game unbeaten streak that would lead them all the way to the final in Johannesburg. Matching them in Amsterdam after going two behind gave the Three Lions the confidence to finish their qualifying group in style, blowing Croatia away 5-1 to finish top with two games to spare. On the pitch, everything was running smoothly.
Off the pitch, however, the captain was knobbing the left-back’s girlfriend, which hit the headlines in February 2010. Hard to say if this was the turning point in the team’s fortunes, but it probably didn’t engender too much pre-tournament camaraderie. Capello’s response wasn’t exactly decisive - stripping JT of the captaincy as punishment for his philandering made out it was some sort of fidelity ribben.
Rooney, in the form of his life, once was once again crocked with a World Cup in sight and subsequently puffed through another tournament half-fit and frustrated. The conclusively knacked David Beckham was also invited to tag along with the management group like it was a celebrity stag do. Lovely bloke, Becks, but you’d imagine he’s about as much use in a crisis as Gunnersaurus.
Bitter club rivalries were tearing the team apart. “I was so engrossed, so obsessed with winning with Man United – nothing else mattered,” Ferdinand recently reflected. Clattered by Heskey in the first training session, Rio played no part in the tournament.
England’s dressing room was moreawkward than a Steve Smith press conference, and it wasn’t long before these off-field meltdowns crept onto the pitch.
In the opening game, Rob Green’s quintessentially English brainfart gave the USA an undeserved equaliser. Capello threw on Crouchy for the final 10. Next, Europe’s highest-scoring team in qualifying drew blanks against Algeria. Capello threw on Crouchy for the final 10.
Angry Terry publically demanded that teammate Joe Cole should start, while Defoe got so bored he watched Rooney’s wedding on DVD. The nerve-jangling 1-0 ground out against Slovenia was to prove the tournament highlight, a performance characterised by hyper-anxiety.
It wasn’t enough to top the group, so England faced Germany in the last sixteen while USA faced Ghana.
We all know what happened next. Lampsy’s ‘ghost goal’ was indeed a kick in the teeth, but most England supporters shared the view of the Guardian’s Owen Gibson: “it is hard to retain a sense of burning injustice having been so comprehensively outplayed.”
Some will understandably argue that England’s players just didn’t have the footie tekkers to win the World Cup. But god dammit that group was winnable, the Mannschaft were avoidable, so the manager surely has to shoulder the blame.
Taking 23 lads to a faraway land for a month without anything to do in their free time was a major oversight. To drop John Terry for his off-field bastardry would have been a huge gamble, but might have helped the other boys find the team spirit that deserted them.
As these human factors flew way over his head, Capello revealed his true colours. The ‘disciplinarian’ mask had slipped: Don Fabio was just another alien.
Defoe was the only striker to score in South Africa, yet Heskey started three of four games. Without Beckham’s crosses, Crouch was predictably ineffective. Germany’s last two goals came from mistakes by Garry Barry, and Stevie G played left mid. At the crucial moment, Capello seemed to forget everything he’d learned on that optimistic night in Amsterdam.