A new take on the golden generation
AS THE final whistle blew on England's appalling exit to Iceland at the Euros last summer, a number of hard messages came home to English football.
We cannot win knockout tournament matches, or cope with the huge pressure piled on us by ourselves and the media. The quiet but significant outcome of the Iceland match is that the history of the ‘golden generation’ was rewritten.
We have been told that the golden generation (Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes et al) did not fulfil their potential.
But in the context of recent results, it has become clear that they actually took England beyond their natural limits at tournaments.
Between 2002 and 2006, England reached three consecutive quarter-finals. This feat has never been matched in our history.
During the Sven-Goran Eriksson era, we only lost three competitive fixtures in normal time. These included a last-gasp defeat to a Zidane-inspired France, a loss to eventual world champions Brazil and a defeat in qualifying to Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.
Compared to previous phases in our history, this is impressive. We also emerged successfully from difficult qualifying groups.
Germany and Turkey at the time were no slouches. The qualifying group for the 2006 tournament included Poland and potential banana skins in Wales and Northern Ireland. The tournament groups were no easier, but we still managed to defeat Argentina in 2002.
Significantly, we also won two knockout tournament matches - Denmark in 2002 and Ecuador in 2006.
To put that into context, in the 36-year period between the 1966 World Cup and 2002, we had only won three knockout matches (excluding the Euro ’96 victory over Spain on penalties and the 1968 third place playoff). Two of those three came in extra-time at Italia ’90 against Cameroon and Belgium. In terms of sustained tournament standards, 2001-2006 was a positive period for the national team. Our failing during this period was an inability to close off matches and stay composed under pressure. The Brazil match in 2002 was a classic example of England losing concentration at key moments at both ends of the pitch.
Beckham’s dodged tackle in midfield before Rivaldo’s equaliser and David Seaman’s bewildered scramble back after Ronaldinho’s free-kick both typified this problem.
We would have beaten Portugal if Rooney had stayed composed in 2006, and indeed if our penalty takers had kept their cool.
Poor game management, rather than intrinsic tactical weaknesses, seemed to be our main flaw.
In contrast, the England team's performance at Euro 2016 was a litany of bad tactical planning and poor decisions (by the manager and the players).
A brilliant video on YouTube by 442oons summarises the comedy of errors rather succinctly: “Kane’s superb free-kicks/ A lucky dip starting eleven/Jo-Jo’s iron man wrists…”
Twelve years prior to that awful defeat to Iceland, we had actually comfortably beaten them 6-1 at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Eriksson’s team certainly fell short against the bigger teams and in the intensity of quarter-finals, but were often comfortable victors against the smaller nations.
We would like to go further than the quarters and the semis, but at present that looks like a pipe dream.
The Iceland result sadly showed that England's 1966 win was a one-off, a blip on an otherwise awful record in major tournaments.
After 1970 our tournaments read DNQ, DNQ, DNQ, DNQ, Group Stage exit.
From 2008 through to 2016, the sequence is only marginally better, reading DNQ, Last 16, Quarter-finals, Group Stage, Last 16.
The performances of English teams over the summer of 2017 (at Toulon, the U20 World Cup and the U19 Euros) give some hope for the future.
Maybe things will improve at Russia 2018 and thereafter…
Perhaps now it is still too early and too raw to look at the facts objectively. Perhaps history will look more kindly on our defeat to Iceland and Euro 2016 displays.
At present, the achievements of the England team from 2001 to 2006 look like something of a golden age, or at least the silver standard.
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