Paul McVeigh

Why weren’t they world beaters?


Nov 17


I recently posted a photo of the England team that went to the 2004 European Championships in Portugal alongside a question: how did this team never win anything?
Consider their starting line up in their 4-2 win over Croatia:
James, G Neville, Terry, Campbell, Cole, Gerrard, Beckham, Scholes, Rooney, Owen, Lampard.
How many of those players would you choose to select for the current England team ahead of those who started the Three Lions last match against Brazil? More to the point, which of Gareth Southgate’s players might, feasibly, have played in that Croatia match ahead of any of the eleven listed above?
Maybe Harry Kane would get the nod ahead of Michael Owen. But that’s about it.

That 2004 team had world class quality in every position. As individual players, they were all champions, no question. David James had just completed his 12th season as a Premier League regular. Gary Neville had won six Premier League title winners medals with Manchester United as well as a Champions League winners medal. Michael Owen had won the Ballon d’Or trophy three years previously. The same award that has either been awarded to Messi or Ronaldo since 2008. The trophies, successes and accolades won by those players is a long one. So you cannot say that England didn’t win things back in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s because they didn’t have players of the same quality as Germany, Spain, France and Brazil.
That’s nonsense. Because England most certainly did. John Terry and Sol Campbell were two of the best central defenders in world football in 2004. They certainly made up the world’s best defensive pairing. Whilst Stephen Gerrard would have had an automatic place in any team you could care to name. Club or international level. As would Paul Scholes, a player who was, according to Xavi Fernandes, “…the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15,20 years”. Zinedine Zidane also speaks warmly of Scholes, saying he was “…the greatest midfielder of his generation”. The type of players for whom winning matches and trophies is a habit. Yet they couldn’t do it with England.
Why is that?

One of the reasons for their common lack of success at international level can be ascertained if you take into account what is known as the four corners of performance. Picture then, a square. At top
left you have Technical and Tactical attributes. Bottom left is Physical, top right is Psychological and bottom right is Social. We’ve already argued that, as far as those players technical, tactical and physical attributes are concerned, they had few, if any, to rival them. So we have to take a look at the social and psychological aspects of their character. Could they handle the pressure and expectation of having to win? Was there, as has been suggested, a bit of a clique mentality in the England squad at the time, one that saw all the players who were club teammates do their own thing socially and,in doing so, form little club cliques at the training camp?

Personally I wonder if they were so fixated in what they needed to do, they weren’t mentally prepared for how they might cope if the unexpected happened. If you are too rigid in your thinking and don’t allow, don’t at least prepare for the unexpected and how you will deal with it if it happens, then, from a psychological perspective, you are going to struggle. And that is what England seemed to do after Wayne Rooney sustained his tournament ending injury in England’s quarter final defeat to Portugal.
Before that happened, both Rooney and England had been on fire. They’d dominated against France and looked set to win before conceding two late goals whilst, in the games that followed against Switzerland and Croatia, they’d scored seven goals with Rooney getting four of them. England then went a goal up against Portugal after just three minutes before, less than half an hour later and with England in the ascendency, Rooney went off injured. Think of the pressure that would have been on Darius Vassell when he came on to replace Rooney. And, crucially, think of what Rooney’s teammates might have been thinking after Rooney went off. Something along the lines of, “…oh s**t, we’re in trouble now”.
Yes, ten world class players completely thrown out of their rhythm because one talismanic striker was forced off. And England, after looking like the best team in the tournament almost from the off, sent home after losing the subsequent penalty shootout against a Portugal side that lost to Greece in the final, just as they had lost to them in the tournaments opening game a few weeks earlier.

The game and result that would have been playing on their minds as soon as they knew they were playing Greece in the final. You could even go as far as to say they’d lost that match, at least in their heads, even before it kicked off. Because, like England, they hadn’t allowed for the unexpected and how to deal with it. And little in world football was ever more unexpected than the Greek triumph at Euro 2004. Except, perhaps, in the minds of the victorious Greece players.

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