Before I start my post-mortem, spare a moment for the British press.
- They didn’t want Owen Hargreaves. Will any of them now admit their error, or will they fall back on saying that he’s “won over the fans”?
- They didn’t want Crouch. And no other manager besides Sven would ever have picked him. Or stuck by him. Will any of them now admit their error, or will they fall back on saying that he’s “won over the fans”?
I could go on, but I won’t.
No team has a right to win any tournament, nor do omens count. Luck has a major part to play, as Argentina will attest. Here are the reasons for England’s defeat last night:
- It’s not that the central midfield – Lampard and Gerrard – failed to play together; they failed to play at all. Hargreaves – allegedly in the holding position – took on the Portuguese last night; his team mates didn’t, and haven’t all the way through. Gerrard’s very obvious angling for the glory goal in the last part of the match instead of finding a better-placed team mate said everything about why he’s considered such a hero: it’s Flashman heroism. Lampard simply fell short altogether – I suspect both mentally and physically very tired after two quite astonishing seasons. Every man has his limits. That Gerrard and Lampard fluffed their penalties isn’t really to do with anything else, but was of a type with everything else that they’d come up with. I agree with Sven – two such good players should be able to work it out between themselves. So, ego on the one hand, exhaustion on the other.
- The injuries to Rooney and Owen were decisive. It’s something of a myth that there are scores of international-ready strikers whom Sven might have taken, and I feel that the criticism he took on this account was harsh. This is especially so when you consider Crouch, of whom more anon. The most obvious candidate, Jermaine Defoe, is not a team player, and not necessarily someone you want in your camp over the course of a tournament – the same consideration, allegedly, that did for Robbie Fowler. But Fowler had a good international scoring record; Defoe’s is some way short of Crouch’s, and of the two it’s clear who has the big match temperament. So, injuries to Rooney and Owen were always going to be catastrophic. Imagine Brazil without Ronaldo (who, overweight, still outperformed every other Brazilian in the end) or Ronaldinho, or, in England’s case, both. I feel that the referee handlied the Rooney thing badly – failing to whistle at all during the long physical assault on Rooney by three Portuguese players, then applying the law to what might have been an accidental stamp in the most draconian way. He’d also failed to give England a cast-iron penalty – but otherwise, I felt he had as good a night as might be expected in such a difficult match.
- The draw didn’t suit England – just as Brazil’s relatively straightforward one didn’t suit them. “Easy paths” just aren’t for us – I felt sick when I saw who we’d been given in the first round. England respond to challenges – we are better off by far in a group of death. As it was, we arrived at Portugal having – as someone wisely said – played four meaningless friendlies. After Rooney’s sending-off, suddenly the challenge rose to the team’s level, and, with the exception of Lampard and Gerrard, we played.
Before the game, Jose Mourinho said that whoever lost could go home knowing that they’d lost to a good side. That was kind, but in all truth Portugal were very lucky last night – only Simao showed any real endeavour, and for all the passing around our penalty area late on, it was very apparent that no one in the Portugal team had any idea what to do with the possession they were receiving. Penalties were a minefield for us, but they were Portugal’s best hope.
England’s Players of the Tournament
- Owen Hargreaves. I wonder how many of the wise men of the press will issue mea culpas today? I suspect none – they’ll act as though it was only a matter of the fans not seeing what they’d seen all along (and mysteriously not written about..) He put Lampard and Gerrard to shame. Without a fixed place in the side, he performed well every time, making a mockery of the more famous midfield pairing’s behaviour.
- Peter Crouch. No other manager would have picked him, let alone taken him over and above Defoe. I doubt he’ll play much for England in future. But he was magnificent when called upon – one glaring miss, that was played up because his name wasn’t Owen, but otherwise an excellent goals-to games ratio, huge contribution to the team, and forty minutes last night that rose above even that.
- David Beckham. It’s now clear that nothing he can do will win him back the press, but given the press’s “success” at predicting the performance of my first two players of the tournament, that can’t really be a problem any more. Remind me of Lampard and Gerrard’s joint goals-and-assists total, then place it next to Beckham’s.
In the context of history
Sven will now be a villain in English football history. The man who squandered the golden generation. It’ll be nonsense – and as we pass from the recent era of relative optimism to four or more years of real mediocrity rather than the imagined kind, there’ll be the odd member of the press pack who’ll look back.
This will be a time of might-have-beens. With more luck, and we have not been lucky, we might now be looking at two World Cups and one European Championship. Without the luck, but with a bit more from the centre of the park, we might have been looking at two World Cups and one European Championship.
The consistency with previous failures is there – the failure to push up, to defend too deeply, is still, infuriatingly, there, and it’s been there for the whole of my adult life. And the failure of great players to get a grip – something Hargreaves’ second coming last night illustrated all too well. If he can do it.. but that question won’t be answered now.
We’ve gone out of the best World Cup of the modern era, thank heavens. That deserves to be remembered.
You have your English coach now. Not the one you wanted – the English coach you preferred was Scolari, or O’Neill, of course, or failing that, Mr. Tomlinson. But may you enjoy the extra patriotism that we had under Keegan, under Taylor, under Robson when we failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championship, under Hoddle in the early stages of the Euro 2000 qualifiers… no doubt that will prove the missing part of the jigsaw.
You can also look forward to the end of selection consistency and the appropriate promotion of players to the international scene. Here is the team who played Germany in Munich in 2001:
Seaman: Neville Campbell Ferdinand Cole: Barmby Gerrard Scholes Beckham: Heskey Owen
Now here’s the “ideal” England lineup that we never quite achieved at this tournament:
Robinson: Nevill Terry Ferdinand Cole: Cole Gerrard Lampard Beckham: Rooney Owen
The changes can be accounted for thus: Seaman retired; Campbell, in the squad but form affected; Barmby, effectively retired (chose to play for Hull City for personal reasons); Scholes retired, and injured for much of the season anyway; Heskey, form.
In short, one change over five years because of form. Compare that to “English” managers Revie and Taylor.
You can look forward no more to the early introduction to the international scene of players who are young but good enough. Compare Hoddle’s treatment of Michael Owen to Erickson’s treatment of Ashley Cole, Rooney, Joe Cole, Stewart Downing, Aaron Lennon and now Theo Walcott.
It’s back to being the underdog again. It’s what the press secretly prefer. With a few exceptions – the usual ones (the names Henry Winter, Jim White and Simon Barnes spring to mind, although not Patrick Barclay this time) – the press just don’t seem intelligent enough to handle our team being front-runners. Where, incidentally, were the “brave substitutions” from Scolari last night that were going to turn the game? Sven’s were better, weren’t they? Well?
All this is rather sour, and I’d prefer to end on a different note. This is still a magnificent World Cup – and the match between France and Brazil last night worthy of any. I feared that Domenech was committing suicide for his excellent side with crazy substitutions, but France pulled through regardless. It’s a magnificent World Cup, and there are still 4 games to look forward to.