Euro 2004; A Better Vintage

Looking in to the past can be depressing. And as the nation knows this is especially true with the national football team and European Championships. Euro 1996 was the diamond in the rough after decades of forgetful tournaments. A Gareth Southgate penalty may have between England and their first final since the 1966 World Cup. Even though ‘football mania’ grasped people up and down the land 16 years ago, England supporters should perhaps look to a closer and simpler time.  Rather than celebrating (or cursing depending if you’re a glass half full/half empty type) that semi-final finish, it’d be more worth our while looking at Euro 2004 as a merrier, jovial and more uplifting time.

Why? Well, yes, in our last European Championships we did lose to Portugal on penalties in the quarter final after losing 2-1 to France, winning 3-0 against Switzerland and dismantling Croatia 4-2 in Group B. If you take a look at the team selection on offer in that tournament, it was arguably the best group of players England has taken to any international competition. There are striking similarities between England’s group in 2004 and with the 2012 batch. France were the Three Lions’ opening opponents yet England were distinctively the underdogs. Riddled with the brilliance of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, the French were the defending champions and confident of stamping their authority on the tournament. But unlike the Euros coming, England were brimming with confidence based on their selection.

The team that started against France was a 4-4-2 of James, Neville, King, Campbell, Cole, Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Rooney and Owen. The big debate was whether an eighteen-year-old Wayne Rooney should be taken, and it didn’t take long to answer that question. There was also none of this neuroticism contemplating if ‘Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard can play together in midfield?’ For the two of them, this was their first, real chance to play at the highest level of international football. They were young, hungry and ready to prove themselves. Perfectly in tandem with these two relative novices were two experienced and mature mavericks of the international scene; David Beckham and Paul Scholes. It was the perfect engine; Gerrard and Lampard would provide the dynamism and Scholes and Beckham the cool and cultured passing game.

It’s almost laughable to look back and see the British press concerning themselves with issues the formation Sven Goran-Eriksson was going to employ. In the run up to Euro 2012, the English camp has had to concern themselves with debacles such as the empty managerial vacancy, the Terry vs. Ferdinand conundrum and the all mighty scandal that Michael Carrick wasn’t put on standby for the squad. That previous comment might be somewhat light hearted but the outrage voiced by some (Manchester United fans) that an insignificant and utterly superfluous figure such as Carrick could be omitted from the squad is risible. Take me back to the days worrying about the effectiveness of a ‘diamond formation’, that was a walk in the park.

Even the English defence was solid. After already establishing himself in the 2002 World Cup, Ashley Cole was going from strength to strength in club football and an honourable chap in the eyes of the nation. The experienced Gary Neville missed that World Cup, but was back to his dominant and responsible best. Rio Ferdinand was suspended after infamously missing a drugs test, but Sol Campbell was enjoying his golden years in an Arsenal shirt and Ledley King was affirming himself as reliable centre-back at Totteham Hotspur. Campbell and King’s collective performance against France was immense, however, King was to be replaced by John Terry for the rest of the competition.

Continuing that theme of strong partnerships was the attacking tour-de-force of Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney. As mentioned, Rooney was untested but that competition brought his best spell in a white shirt to date. Considering it was his maiden expedition, he could have been forgiven for having an off-tournament but after a dubious first 70 minutes against France he won an England a penalty, making a fool of the experienced Mikael Silvestre. He went on to bag himself a total of four goals in Euro 2004, scoring twice against Switzerland and then Croatia. To see him effortlessly glide past Europe’s most distinguished defenders as a teenager was wondrous and if it wasn’t for an injury against Portugal in the quarter-finals, he would have won the golden boot and England would have progressed. Owen on the other hand was having a trickier time of it. No goals came in the group stages, Rooney was getting all the plaudits in the second striker role. However a goal in the third minute against Portugal got him off the mark. It was a typical Owen finish as well, with his back to goal he deftly flicked the ball over the on rushing Ricardo. Owen and Rooney would only play one more game together in an international tournament and in truth their partnership never really grew to the dizzy heights that Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham managed in the mid to late nineties. However worrying how two word class strikers are going to play with each other is always a luxury. With Rooney suspended for the opening two games at Euro 2012 and no convincing replacement, this is another concern that I’d want to have back.

England’s Euro 2004 wasn’t without controversy: Gerrard’s poor back-pass put Thierry Henry through on goal in the 93rd minute against France which led to James wiping him out and England losing the game to a Zidane penalty. Gerrard was briefly slaughtered in the back pages of the press but a fantastic performance which included the opening goal against Switzerland subdued his critics. After leading against Portugal for 80 minutes in the quarters it was horrific to see England then concede. A bit of steel in that game surely would have lead to a semi-final finish, if not further. But that summer was successful. King, Terry, Owen Hargreaves, Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney all got vital experience that everybody assumed would lead to brighter and better things.

So since that hopeful summer, what has happened? Nothing is the answer. In World Cup 2006 in Germany we saw England knocked out on penalties again, by Portugal again, in the quarter finals again and by a team coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari again. We’ve seen England fail to qualify for Euro 2008. We’ve seen two managers arrive and leave, one because he lacked the tactical intelligence one because he fell out with the FA. We’ve seen Wayne Rooney play fantastically for England, but we’ve also seen him combust and become ineffectual in 2006 and to a larger extent in 2010. We’ve also seen a justifiable decline of respect for our English footballers. In 2004 there was still the cynicism that went with being a modern day Premier League player. But Ashley Cole since then has acrimoniously switched London clubs because he wasn’t being paid enough money and commit a number of infidelities. We’ve seen John Terry stripped of the English captaincy twice, take part in similar extra-marital shenanigans to Cole and  is now awaiting a court case determining whether he racially abused Anton Ferdinand. Wayne Rooney hasn’t fared much better with revelations about his personal life off the field and misdemeanours on it. This has all lead to a lack of kinship with the national team.

It’s been a barren eight years since the last Euros. England haven’t played as well in an international tournament since. They scored less goals in 2006 and stagnated somewhat when facing Ecuador and Portugal in the round of 16 and quarter finals. They didn’t even muster a ‘good’ 90 minutes in the 2010 World Cup. Impressive twenty minute spells against Slovenia and Germany were all to take from South Africa, and they still went on to concede four against ‘the old enemy’. The exuberance of Euro 2004 was there to be seen and if England can emulate this in Poland and Ukraine then they might win over jaded supporters. England may not win Euro 2012, but the best they can do is play exciting, passionate and direct football, laying down a template for the years to come.

5 Responses to “Euro 2004; A Better Vintage”
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