England’s failure in the 2006 World Cup, unsurprisingly on penalties, brought about that familiar disappointment and the usual inquests from the media and fans alike. The melancholic failures since 1966 were all the more painful considering the consensus that the country possessed a pool of talent with the best chance to win the Jules Rimet trophy in a long, long time.
The inquests began, why was Walcott taken instead of Defoe? Is the perceived, paradoxical issue of foreigners in the Premiership contributing to it? Can Lampard and Gerrard function together? Why doesn’t the former repeat his club form for country? Why don’t the players gel together? They ran to those a little more subliminal, does the nation have a losing mentality where sport is concerned (even bearing in mind the rugby team’s success in 2003 and a year after that World Cup)? The final, personal one is why did the media have to hound Luiz Felipe Scolari causing him to reverse his decision to take the job on after that tournament in Germany?
Given all of the disenchantment, it is perhaps understandable that the qualification campaign for the European Championship in 2008 has been plagued by negativity. The humdrum nature of the early performances, such as defeat and a shambolic performance playing 3-5-2 in Croatia, culminating in the abuse received in Andorra, has been no surprise, to be honest. George Cohen was the latest, frustrated individual to deliver his damning indictment, while Steve McClaren was no doubt thanking his lucky stars inside the bathroom when Sychev struck the post in Israel on Saturday.
Make no mistake, the fan in me, while only 24-years-old, has suffered the familiar disappointments in my relatively brief lifetime. Occasionally, while proud every time I hear that Baddiel and Skinner song, I tire of it all; the media, the failure, the hype, the criticism and everything that goes with it. That’s England for me, I suppose, though no doubt I will still firmly believe we can win Euro 2008, should England beat Croatia, come April and May and keep the dream alive.
Hence occasionally, in spite of my patriotism, I find it completely and utterly refreshing to see another nation doing well, particularly when against the odds. It reminds me, with all the respect in the world, of an FA cup run from an unfancied team. I have watched Northern Ireland and Scotland‘s dreams unfold, blossom, end, appear to end and stay alive in one case quite closely this time around. Saturday’s matches involving these teams, and Israel, were terrific to watch, a very welcome break from watching England. Indeed, remember Lawrie Sanchez’s run in charge of Wycombe a few years back? Sanchez is managing Fulham now, of course, in a parallel with the Blackburn manager, Mark Hughes, who oversaw an enjoyable and memorable Welsh run aiming for the championships in 2004, only to lose in the play-offs to Russia.
A visit to Windsor Park recently, to see Glentoran beat Crusaders 2-1 and clinch the County Antrim shield, evoked memories of England’s 1-0 defeat there in 2005. There is a mural depicting that particular victory on a wall in East Belfast. It seemed Norn Iron had the potential to do well, but their quest to reach Euro 2008 commenced in disconcerting fashion, losing 3-0 at home to Iceland. They have bounced back in tremendous style, recording a magnificent 3-2 victory over Spain followed by a draw against Denmark and victories over Latvia, Liechtenstein, and Sweden.
Several factors combined to ensure the Ulster renaissance; Sanchez and his ability to get the best out of the team, employing a direct 4-5-1 system that made the team particularly difficult to beat at Windsor Park, where the form of David Healy in particular has caused shockwaves around Europe, a well marshalled defence, magnificent support both home and away augmented by some highly unexpected wins.
The form of the team brought the manager under the microscope of Mohammed Al Fayed, who promptly swooped to employ Sanchez in April 2007. Naturally, it was feared that the campaign would be derailed.
Aside from a victory over Liechtenstein again in August, overseen by the new manager, Nigel Worthington, the fears were realised in the most heartbreaking fashion; successive defeats against Latvia and Iceland and both of them caused by own-goals. Yet there were more twists to come, Kyle Lafferty’s superb strike ensured Olof Mellberg’s header was cancelled out as Northern Ireland claimed a point.
An enthralling victory over Denmark followed on a sodden pitch at Windsor; my visit to the stadium gave me the inclination the Scandinavians wouldn’t find it an easy night, along with previous results. Nicklas Bendtner gave the visitors the lead, but they were soon pegged back by Warren Feeney’s header. The momentum picked up again, Feeney hit a brilliant volley from 25 yards against the woodwork, before Healy broke Davor Suker’s qualifying goals record of 12 with a sublime chip. It would be no exaggeration to call it Cantona-esque; Healy took no more than a brief glimpse upwards before despatching the chip over Sorensen in goal. The drama hadn’t ended, Dennis Rommedahl’s free-kick struck the woodwork and Sammy Clinghan looked to divert a goalbound shot away with his arm in the dying moments. Northern Irish hopes were kept alive, thought they still need a win in the Gran Canaria and hope that Latvia overcome Sweden to stand any chance now.
The Clinghan incident just emphasised how pivotal the officiating can be at times, while Scotland were most probably cursing theirs while this match was taking place. They were heartbroken, after a memorable qualifying effort had come to a valiant end just hours earlier at Hampden Park. The links between Scottish and Northern Irish society need no documenting, yet the former had enjoyed a memorable, roller-coaster campaign in similar style to the latter. On what proved to be a captivating day of football, they were left realistically needing to beat the Azzuri to secure the passage to their first major tournament in 10 years.
There was no shortage of drama at Hampden. Italy were ahead within a minute as they took advantage of some extremely hesitant Scottish defending to find Luca Toni. The giant target-man didn’t need a second invitation, cleverly flicking the ball into the top corner of the net. The Tartan Army had only just finished their Flower of Scotland rendition and were utterly stunned. It could have been worse soon after, Mauro Camoranesi and Toni again going close. With what was to follow, Alex McLeish would bemoan the standard of the officials, but it was Italy who had more cause for complaint. Antonio Di Natale found the net but saw the goal ruled out, wrongly, for offside. The best the hosts could muster tended to come from set-plays, but there were simply too many Italian bodies back: underlined when Andrea Pirlo, usually more of an attacking threat, was on the line to nod away David Weir’s header.
Scotland came out and grabbed a contentious equaliser in the second-half, through Barry Ferguson. The Rangers man looked offside as he put the ball in, but it gave the hosts the impetus they needed to rattle Italy.
Their dominance came to a head in the 80th minute, when James McFadden was played in by Kenny Miller. Agonisingly, McFadden could only fire Miller’s cross wide of the post. With it, one felt, went Scotland’s hopes and so it proved when Christian Panucci headed home in time added on following another paradoxical refereeing decision. Being impartial, with the decisions in mind and the fact the hosts didn’t take their chances, it was probably about the right result but it was cruel on the Scots.
It has been fascinating to watch them too, as along with Northern Ireland there was an upsurge in national attention, belief and optimism following one big result, against France in late 2006. While there were defeats in the Ukraine, Italy and Georgia before the final match, another victory over France, in the Parc Des Princes. James McFadden’s magnificent strike, combined with some heroic defending, ensured a famous victory. A win over the Ukraine followed, setting up the decisive clash, but Alex McLeish can be very, very proud of his men.