This afternoon, England kick-off their Euro 2020 campaign (UEFA decided against a costly rebrand) against Croatia, in a rematch of their 2018 World Cup semi-final. England narrowly missed out on a great opportunity three years ago, losing 2-1 on that occasion, but will be confident that they can go one better this time around. As ever, they will be backed fervently throughout the tournament by a nation desperate for football to finally come home again, with the added benefit of playing their group games at Wembley and the incentive of potentially playing the semi-final and final there also.
However, to suggest that manager Gareth Southgate is now immune to criticism after guiding his side to last four in Russia – whilst simultaneously making it cool for men to wear waistcoats, in a way John Virgo never could – would be naïve. A quick glance at the comments on social media after the announcement of his final 26-man squad dispelled any doubts about that.
There were numerous questions asked regarding the composition of the squad, with some querying why certain players were picked when they are not fully fit, though the main point of contention related to Southgate’s unconventional decision to initially select four-right backs. (Unfortunately, Trent Alexander-Arnold has since been ruled out after sustaining a thigh injury in England’s 1-0 win over Austria, in the first of their warm-up matches)
Ultimately, squad selection is important but if Southgate is to become the manager to end England’s 55 ‘years of hurt’ (yes, that’s right, it has been 25 years since Three Lions was first released) it will not be because of the amount of right sided full backs he has selected.
England’s success, or otherwise, will be down to how well they can adapt tactically, as well as their ability to retain possession, which has rightfully been a recurring criticism of England at major tournaments so far this century.
Over the course of nine major tournaments – Steve McClaren’s England failed to reach Euro 2008 after defeat against Croatia on a wet Wednesday night at Wembley, spurring the brutal ‘Wally with a Brolly’ moniker – there have been performances that have warranted the joyous optimism that followed them.
There have been great collective team efforts, such as the resolute defensive endeavour displayed against Argentina at the 2002 World Cup, whereas a teenage Wayne Rooney lit up Euro 2004 in a such a way that it made you think that England always had a chance whilst he was on the pitch – typically once he was injured, England went out.
Yet England’s glory days have been few and far between. And no team has been able to put it all together for a whole tournament and repeat the feats of Sir Alf Ramsey’s World Cup wining side of 1966.
But maybe this will be the summer when England pay back their supporters for all that angst, agony and on the odd occasion anger, they have suffered over the years. I know, this is classic deluded football fan folly, but what’s wrong dreaming a little as another major tournament looms?
So, in the spirit of believing that with “Three Lions on my chest, I Know we can’t go wrong” (fair play, John Barnes delivered that World In Motion rap with some gusto) I am going to sit back and relax in the (misguided) knowledge that England are on the road to glory.
And in tribute to Southgate’s original 26 picks, I’m going to take things right back, four times (I’ll get my coat/waistcoat…) to England’s other European Championship campaigns since the turn of century, just to remind myself that sometimes the Three Lions don’t always roar, but whimper.
Euro 2000: If a week is a long time in politics, then 20 minutes is an eternity in football. After racing to a two-goal lead after 18 minutes in their opening game of Euro 2000, Kevin Keegan’s England side were soon level with opponents Portugal by half-time. Then, within 20 minutes of the restart, they were behind and went on to lose a thrilling game 3-2. England would once again be on the wrong side of another 3-2 thriller in their final group game against Romania, that would seal fate as they exited the tournament. In the era of oblivious scapegoating- and instead of facing the cold harsh truth that England just weren’t good enough- the fans and the media blamed Phil Neville for the defeat. It was Neville’s clumsy tackle that led to a penalty being awarded, which was subsequently dispatched to secure Romanian victory and confirm England’s elimination. Sandwiched between the two five-goal thrillers, England did manage to sneak a 1-0 win against a weak German side (by their standards anyway – most of the squad were either victorious at Euro 96 or made the World Cup squad which reached the final in 2002) courtesy of an Alan Shearer header. But that was as good as things got for England in their first major tournament of the new millennium. And as for Keegan? Well, his England reign ended later that year after a 1-0 home defeat against the Germans in the last game at the old Wembley, in a 2002 World Cup qualifier. With many believing he resigned after an emergency meeting in the Wembley toilets. If true, then what a crap way for him to end his tenure (Sorry Kevin)
Euro 2004: This was Sven Goran-Eriksson’s second major tournament in charge of England, but the first one in which England were expected to really challenge for the trophy. First up for Sven’s men was France, and what a game it was. There was high energy, an abundance of tension throughout, and it was a game of defining moments. After an inch-perfect David Beckham free-kick found the head of Frank Lampard, who precisely directed the ball to the top corner, England were 1-0 up seven minutes before half time and looking good value for their lead. Rooney, as he would be during the rest of his Euro 2004, was threatening, and after channelling the genius of Gazza during Euro 96, he made legendary defender Lillian Thuram look like Colin Hendry, after a deft flick lobbed the full back out on the touchline just inside his own half. Rooney then sprinted down the pitch towards the French goal, only to be unsubtly chopped down in the box by Mikael Silvestre. Somehow, Silvestre escaped a red card, but England were awarded a penalty. However, Beckham couldn’t capitalise and his penalty was saved brilliantly by the bald bundle of energy between the sticks that was Fabain Barthez. Unfortunately for England, they would soon rue that missed penalty. The game was on a knife edge heading into the final few minutes, and in the first minute of stoppage time, substitute Emile Heskey gave away an unnecessary free-kick on the edge of England’s box. From there, Zinedine Zidane stepped up and beautifully curled the silver ball into the black netting of the goal (I still don’t know why the organisers opted for those colours either) But that wasn’t it. Less than two minutes later an errant no-look back pass by Gerrard unintentionally put through Thierry Henry, who was then brought down by David James to give the French a last gasp penalty. Zidane made no mistake, and it was 2-1 to France with virtually the last kick of the game. To their credit, England bounced back well in their next two group games (the 4-2 triumph over Croatia was a very entraining encounter) and with the fearless Rooney in amongst their ranks, an inspired squad went into the quarter-finals confident, with the hosts Portugal standing in their way of a semi-final spot. Sadly, Rooney got injured and was substituted after half an hour, and despite battling hard to equalize with five minutes remaining in extra-time, to bring the scores level at 2-2, it was penalty heartbreak once more for the Three Lions- as it would be two years later in the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals against the same opposition. In the fallout England rightly received criticism for their inability to keep hold of the ball, though they could feel slightly aggrieved that a key refereeing decision did not go their way. Sol Campbell bundled a header over the line in the final minute of normal time, which would have put England 2-1 ahead, but it would turn out to be a bitter case of déjà vu for Campbell. The imposing centre back had experienced being the victim of a questionable refereeing decision six years earlier during the last 16 tie against Argentina at France 98, though there was to be no redemption to be found here, and once Beckham and Darius Vassell missed their spot-kicks, it was Portugal goalkeeper Ricardo who took the winning penalty to secure a memorable shootout victory for the Portuguese and send the English home unhappy.
Euro 2012: I can only assume that the 100 words of English that Fabio Capello did bother to learn didn’t include ‘compromise’ as a fall out with FA executives, over the decision to strip John Terry as the England captain, caused the fiery Italian to resign from his post just months before he was to take charge of England’s first game of Euro 2012. As much as it would have interesting to see if Capello could put right the horrible wrongs of the 2010 World Cup, I didn’t care that much that he left. England were boring to watch, with the games becoming a chore to get through. And so, in his place came Roy Hodgson. Euro 2012 was viewed by many as Hodgson’s ‘free hit’ - though it could be argued he had another one at the 2014 World Cup, by retaining his job despite England’s group stage exit - and in the tournament, he led England to a respectable quarter-final finish based on the personnel at his disposal. England’s European Championship began with a decent draw against France in the opening game and was followed up by an enthralling 3-2 victory against Sweden, featuring a cheeky backheel winner by Danny Welbeck with 12 minutes remaining. A shaky 1-0 win against Ukraine secured England’s passage to the last 8 where they come against a tactically astute, if not spectacular, Italian side. After a cagey stalemate, it went down to penalties, and once more England went down after a penalty shootout defeat. The shootout was at least memorable for the sublime skill of Andrea Pirlo making Joe Hart look a bit silly in goal for England, and Hart was so pumped up that his face was turning as red as his kit (though maybe that’s just me misremembering things?)
Euro 2016: Well, at least we beat Wales! (Though they reached the semi-finals, but whatever) When I recall England’s run at Euro 2016, I think of the words my parents would say when I had done something bad at school. They would calmly utter “we’re not angry, we’re just disappointed”. However, the reason why I think of these words is because I felt the exact opposite after the truly abysmal performance against Iceland in last 16. I’m over it now (probably) but after putting up with fairly turgid football in the group stage, to exit Euro 2016 after an embarrassing defeat against Iceland, in one of the most abject performances ever seen from an England side, was a slap in the face. And I’ll admit to feeling further incensed by Hodgson after he had the temerity to question why he should be attending a post-tournament press conference! But time is a great healer, and thankfully the incredulous England support were soon uplifted by Southgate and his side at the 2018 World Cup. In fairness to Hodgson, he was working with players from English clubs which weren’t dominating Europe around that period - Leicester were infamously champions of England in 2016. Plus, captain Rooney was well past his prime and was often utilised in a midfield which lacked dynamism. And at least we can laugh now, about how England were out of Europe twice in one week (top newspaper Brexit banter, that) or a great British pun such as ‘EURO trash from England’, and who could ever forget Steve ‘not-so-mystic’ McClaren’s stint as a match reporter in the Sky Sports News studio, reassuring all England fans -who would for some unknown reason be watching a sports news channel rather than the actual game on terrestrial television – suggesting England would soon be back in it, just moments before they conceded what would be the decisive goal. What a time to be alive, eh?
"It's coming home...": only time will tell if England have learnt their lessons from Russia 2018, but Southgate has already suggested that fans will NOT see the waistcoat again this summer
This is the trophy that all of the 24 teams will be competing for: the final takes place at Wembley on Sunday 11th July.