Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Part 2: 1998-2002 - "Kevin, do you back him to score? Yes or no?”

France '98

Two years on from the disappointment of Euro '96, the country was once again all fired up and full of blind optimism as the World Cup began in nearby France.

Back then if course, Shearer was still scoring for fun, Scotland still qualified for major tournaments, fat Ronaldo was just Ronaldo, and England's football hooligans expressed their dislike for European patio furniture the only way they knew how.

For England, it was a chance to shake off the demons of '96 and we went to France as one of the favourites to win. A seemingly easy group consisting of Tunisia, Columbia and Romania was the first hurdle we needed to get over though, a it was a task that proved easier said than done.

The tournament as a whole was of great convenience to English fans. Those of us watching at home missed few games as the French very nicely scheduled games for 2pm, 5:30pm, and 9pm (take note Yanks, that's how you schedule a major tournament), to minimise the number of matches lost to such minor obstacles as 'work'.

Likewise, those English fans who decided to travel to the tournament faced a short trip over the channel, and before they knew it they were in the French sunshine, drinking cheap lager and fighting with the locals. *Sniff*, Henry V would have been proud.

England's tournament began in sunny Marseille against Tunisia. Shearer gave us a first half lead, and then Scholes capped off the win with a second goal a few minutes from time. Glen Hoddle's team looked far from confident, but had got the required result nonetheless.

Word quickly got round our school that we had won 2-0 and once again, the dream was back on. Here we go again, this time we'll get it right. 13 year old me momentarily forgot the '96 incident and allowed my hopes to rise once again. This time, the Germans wouldn't deny us a shot at glory. And I was right.....the Germans wouldn't.

The next group game saw us take on Romania in Toulouse. A game we couldn't afford TO-LOSE. (Tee-Hee, with punsmanship like that a job at the Mirror can't be far off!). After going a goal behind late in the first half, we got a goal back in the second thanks to a bright young spark called Michael Owen, who, statistics show me was 18 at the time, but unless my memory fails me I'm fairly sure he was about 12. Unfortunately, despite Owen's big impact, Romania grabbed a late winner and sealed a demoralising and unexpected defeat for Glen Hoddle's side.

The final group game saw us take on Columbia in a game that would effectively decide who joined Romania in the next round. England dominated the game and a screamer from Darren Anderton and a clinical free kick from David Beckham sealed our passage into the next round. Unfortunately, due to Romania drawing with Tunisia, they finished in top spot and we had to make do with second. That meant we faced the winner of Group H, which was an as yet unbeaten Argentina.

The tournament so far was certainly not quite as memorable as the Euro tournament that preceded it. Uninspiring performances against average opposition was hardly setting the pulses racing. This would all change with the Argentina clash however as the match provided more than enough drama to make up for the dreary tournament so far.

It was a daunting match that suddenly looked all the more daunting when Argentina took the lead through a Batistuta penalty after only six minutes. Luckily for heart-rates across England, Shearer managed to equalise from the spot for England four minutes later after Michael Owen was savagely fouled and in no way made the most of any challenge.

After his dramatic impact against Romania in the group stage, young 'next big thing' Michael Owen was already a crowd favourite going into the Argentina game. After 16 minutes he cemented this position further with a stunning solo strike against one of the strongest defences in the competition.

The nippy forward (Not quite so nippy now of course. If players lose 'that half a yard' every time they get an injury, Owen must have lost a couple of miles by now), was played in near the half way line by Beckham where he turned on the ball and hurtled at breakneck speed towards the Argentinian goal. Leaving two defenders in his wake and deftly ignoring the oncoming Paul Scholes, he then finished coolly from the edge of the area. Not bad for a 12 year old.

It was a goal worthy of winning any match, and once that hit the back of the net, England's fans had a new national hope to replace the ageing Shearer, but more crucially, were ahead in the tie for the first time.

Unfortunately however, Argentina chose to ignore the 'goal-worthiness factor' and soon leveled from a well worked free kick. It was the type of free kick you always think should be scored more often. So simple and effective, the attacker peeling off the wall at the last minute to receive a weighted pass, leaving the entire defensive wall wrong footed and then curling the ball into the far corner. Yet when my team try anything like this, it usually results in the ball being passed way too early and trickling harmlessly out of play, leaving four or five confused players staring at each other with arms outstretched trying to figure out where they went wrong. "We've been working on that one all week" some comedian will usually note in the crowd.

The free kick was the last real action of the half and the teams went in at the break all square.
Early in the second half however, came the turning point of the match. After a typically combative challenge on Beckham from the Argentinian Robbie Savage (sort of) Diego Simeone, the English midfielder was face down on the turf and nursing his wounds, when from nowhere he flicked out a boot and clipped Simeone on the leg.

I'm sure if Becks good go back in time and do anything differently in his career, bar a few questionable haircut's and wife-related fashion disasters, this one petulant kick out would be the thing he changed.

Upon watching the replay, I think even the mot pig-headed and unflinchingly biased England fan grudgingly muttered to themselves, "he's gotta go for that". In reality, we all know it wasn't that vicious a crime, Simeone rolled about a bit for dramatic affect of course, but the kick was hardly a full throttle assault. It was a flimsy flick out. In international football however, we all know the rules, and Beckham himself would have been all too aware that if you kick, punch, slap, bite, pinch or excessively tickle an opponent, you're going to get sent off.

The Argentinian players, little darlings that they are, spent a good minute or so speed walking towards the referee, making sure he realised the true enormity of the situation. I mean, what could they have been saying at this point? "Ref!!! he kicked him, he kicked him, oh the humanity, will he even walk again? He had a wife and kid at home! His leg was only 2 days away from retirement! HE KICKED HIM. OH GOD HE KICKED HIM!!!!!"

Inevitably, the Danish official booked Simeone for the original foul and then reached into the back pocket of doom and pulled out the red. Beckham was off and England were down to ten men.

The proverbial salt being rubbed into the wound was offered by Argentinian legend Gabriel Batistuta, who, as Beckham trudged despairingly away from the field, nodded approvingly at the ref's decision. Oh the smugness. So much smugness. Few faces have exuded such smackability in their time. It's right up there in the 'smarmy smug smackable Face' stakes with Piers Morgan and Michael Portillo. In his head, was he thinking "What a good decision. Well done referee. I cannot agree strongly enough with this decision. It's a good day, a good day to be alive". Or, was he just being a smug tw*t who was all too aware the TV cameras were on him at the time. Methinks it was the latter.

So, England were down to ten men. The tabloid journalists finished their maniacal cackling and gleeful hand rubbing (probably), and went straight to work on making sure the whole country knew Becks was to blame. One headline that sticks in the mind was "Ten Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy". This was he start of a tough year or so for the boy wonder as few rival fans let him forget that he was being held responsible for the unfavourable outcome of this game.

Yours truly must admit that he was part of the Beckham-blaming brigade in the emotional aftermath of the World Cup, and even with the use of hindsight, it's hard to not lay the blame for this loss largely at his feet. He made a mistake however, and perhaps, 12 years on, we have all long let it be, THAT last gasp free kick against Greece saw him atone for his sins in many eyes. (There's a theme emerging here I sense of players making up for their mistakes and reclaiming the fan's love. Whenever you're ready Mr Southgate.) Back in 1998 however, he was public enemy number one.

Meanwhile, back in St Etienne, Hoddle's ten men battled on bravely. We now faced almost the entirety of the second half with a man down, a daunting task against any team, let alone one of the best in the world.

We held on resolutely, and the defence repelled all that Argentina could throw at them. There was still time for the match officials to break English hearts before the match went into extra time however. With nine minutes to go, Darren Anderton floated in a superb corner and Sol Campbell met it full on sending a bullet header into the Argentine net.

If you have chance, go on YouTube and watch the highlights of this game. When you get to this incident, there's a moment after Sol's fired the header in, when he's wheeling away to celebrate with the the rest of the English bench on the touchline, when both he, and the rest of the squad, are all ecstatically celebrating this unexpected goal. Savour that moment. This was almost the Roy of the Rovers special. A Jimmy Glass-esque moment of magic.

The ten men, against the odds, had scored a late winner (well, 81 minutes is late-ish), with the scorer himself finding the net for the first time in his international career. Freeze that moment in time and think about how good it could have been. Imagine the mental you could have had. Then, unclick pause, and rejoin reality.

The Danish ref had seen an infringement and ruled out the goal. Multiple replays showed Alan Shearer jumping with eyes fixed on the ball, and the out-rushing keeper running into him and flailing wildly. The ref saw this as a foul and ruled it out. Across England, hopes were dashed, celebrations were halted mid-jump and hands were clasped to disbelieving heads.

I watched this game at home with my parents, with it being a school night and me being only 13 at the time, the late evening kick off gave few other options. I remember the celebrations when Michael Owen scored. I remember the expletives hurled at both the ref and Mr Beckham when he got sent off, but what I remember most of all was the sense of disbelief I had when the goal was disallowed. I remember genuinely believing this wasn't fair. How could it be disallowed after we worked so hard?

I turned to Keeling senior for an explanation of some sorts. Why has this happened? Is this really allowed to happen? With a slow shake of the head, my dad gave me a look that as a Stoke fan, I have come to recognise from him all to often since this date. It was a look that said "life's a shithouse son, and usually football makes you nothing but miserable. Get used to it." The rest of the game was watched in silence.

England held on through extra time and managed to force the game into penalties. Now, we all had our skins thickened by the Euro 96 heartbreak, and I'm sure we all vowed we'd never let our guards down again, but back in 1998, we all clung once again to the belief that this time, the penalty gods would be on our side.

It even began to look up for England at one point as after both teams had converted their opening penalties, Crespo missed the Argentinians second. Could it be? Could another footballing nation be as woeful at penalties as us? Luckily, Paul Ince was on hand to resume business as usual and make sure no one back in England got their hopes up too much, as he stepped up and saw his penalty saved by the Argentinian stopper Roa. Ahhh, our old friend that sinking feeling, you return to visit us once again.

The next few takers all converted to make the score 4-3 to Argentina and leave England needing to score their last penalty to take the game to sudden death.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and up stepped midfield enforcer David Batty. Many people still puzzle over why Batty was chosen to take a penalty, but when you consider Beck's had been sent off and the other four forwards or midfielder on the pitch had now taken a penalty, we weren't really left with much choice. Would we rather have had Southgate step up again, or maybe Tony Adams? It is fair to say however, that Batty was certainly not known for his striking prowess, and in fact he had never taken a penalty in a competitive game before this day. He did not strike you as a confident man as he shuffled hesitantly towards the penalty spot.

As Batty began his laboured run up, Commentator Brian Moore, grasping desperately for words that will echo down the ages, (after all, every commentator secretly yearns for their "They think it's all over" moment) turns to co-commentator Kevin Keegan and asks him "Kevin, do you back him to score? Yes or no?”

Ever reliable Kev fired back an emphatic "Yes."

Never before has one man’s prediction proved so wrong and simultaneously so aggravating. From this point onwards the saying "don't count your eggs before they are hatched" should be changed to "don't count your penalties before they've bulged the net...........KEVIN."

Batty's penalty was hit far too central and the keeper made an easy save. With that, England were out of the World Cup.

I should say at this point, I never actually saw Batty's penalty in real time. I only knew we were out of the World Cup thanks to Keegan's groan and my parent's frustrated sighs. The fact is, I couldn't watch Batty's penalty. It had all proven too much for me. I went and sat on the stairs, head in hands and listened for the eventual outcome. In the end, the silence was deafening.

Our front room sat in pained silence as the various replays merely added to the sense of disappointment. It really felt like we'd been unfairly treated somehow. A combination of the sending off, the distinct lack of Argentinian sportsmanship, the disallowed goal and the unavoidable harshness of penalties in general.

Luckily for Batty and Ince, unlike the likes of Waddle, Pearce and Southgate before them, their penalty misses would not render them scapegoats for England's exit. Thanks to Beckham and his petulance, the blame was deflected away on to his young shoulders.

Pain Rating - 9/10

Euro 2000

The next tournament was far less disappointing for England and it's fans. It was too crap to be disappointing. Now under the expert tutelage of Kevin 'Penalty Nostradamus' Keegan came the woeful Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland.

We found ourselves in the proverbial 'group of death', alongside Portugal, Romania and Germany. Despite this tough group, progression to the next round was still the bare minimum of expectations.

We started off with a poor result against Portugal as we clutched defeat from the jaws of victory and threw away a two goal lead to lose 3-2. Then came the tournament's bright spot as we beat an aging Germany side 1-0. At the time this was pretty enjoyable, as any victory over the old enemy is bound to be. There was certainly some hope this would kick start our campaign and see us charge on to victory. Unfortunately, this message didn't filter through to the players.

Our last game against Romania was meant to be our easiest but unfortunately even they proved too much for the lacklustre England side. With the game at 2-2, and Romania piling on pressure, the time was right for someone to step up and become the national scapegoat. There has to be one after all. Enter Mr Philip Neville. A lazy lunge on a Romanian attacker in the 89th minute, gave the ref no choice but to award a penalty. The Romanian's slotted their penalty away and with it secured second place in the group. Amazingly though, despite this costly error and the endless barracking that comes with it, Phil Neville was still infinitely more popular than his brother.

Pain rating - 5/10

After a dismal start to the qualification campaign for the next World Cup, including the 1-0 loss to Germany in the last game at the old Wembley, Keegan quit as England coach and was replaced by the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Sven may not have been the most popular choice for England manager, indeed many experts failed to comprehend how a non-Englishman could possibly succeed as England manager. "Johnny Foreigner in charge of our brave boys! My god, it's enough to make you spit out your tea and drop your crumpet."

"He won't understand the British game!'"They said. "He won't know what it means to be British!" They cried. However, eventually he cheated on his missus with Ulrika Jonsson and was then caught shagging his secretary as well for good measure. Infidelity and tabloid sex scandals... and they were worried he wouldn't fit into the English game!

It was under Sven that we went to Munich in 2001 in need of a win to stay in with a chance of winning our qualification group. That magical evening will go down in history as one of the all time great English victories. A devastating 5-1 romp was wildly celebrated back in England and it was a joy to behold as big Emile, yes even big Emile got in on the action, smacked the 5th goal home. England were hitting form at just the right time and went on to win the group.

Next stop was South Korea and Japan!

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