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Saturday, 26 June 2004

880: EURO 2004: England's not so gl

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by : Stephen Orford

Despite my lower leg paralysis my knee is about to jerk in reaction to England's exit from the European Championships last night (June 24). Though on the surface it seems like another glorious hard luck story for England, dig a little deeper and you will find that Sven's men got exactly what they deserved from the match. Nothing.

It seems that no lessons were learned from the opening group game against France, in which England resolutely defended a 1-0 lead for an eternity, only to let it slip at the last. It was a simiilar story in the same Lisbon stadium against the hosts, as Helda Postiga officially removed himself from the missing persons list to notch the all-important equaliser. From that moment on, watching that game as an England fan was exactly how I imagine it would feel to be on death row after committing a heinous crime. We were simply waiting for the inevitable to happen, to finally be handed our punishment for the crime of footballing negativity.

There were certain circumstances which could be said to be slightly mitigating. The loss of Wayne Rooney after less than half an hour with a broken foot did little to help England as an attacking force. Also, there are football experts from every corner of the globe who are still trying to work out how Sol Campbell's last-gasp goal was chalked off by referee Urs Meier. Goalkeepers have long been a protected species, but in Meier Portugal 'keeper Ricardo seemed to have his very own personal armed guard.

Rooney's replacement, Darius Vassell, proved lively when he was involved in the game but all too often he and striker partner Michael Owen were isolated figures. At times they were so far ahead of an ever-retreating midfield that they would have needed mobile phones to communicate. Added to this was the fact that both are small men, and although Owen's goal came about as a result of an aimless hoof up the field by David James, several attempts to repeat the trick were doomed to failure. Vassell's misery, and that of the nation, was complete when he missed his spot-kick in the traditional England penalty shoot-out failure.

Hindering our hopes even further was mad-cap coach Sven Goran Eriksson. Not only did he impose on his team the tactics of a terrified man, but he also made personnel changes which gave the team no other option than caution. The enforced loss of Rooney apart, his substitutions were again mystifying as first Paul Scholes and then Steven Gerrard were withdrawn from the action. In fairness, Gerrard's replacement Owen Hargreaves was one of few players to attempt creativity in attack, while Scholes' role was filled by Phil Neville. A man with a history of European Championship disasters, Neville was last seen trying to clamber on to Rui Costa's back before the Portuguese veteran thrashed an emphatic shot past the statue-esque David James.

At that point England showed a commendable level of fighting spirit, miraculously rescuing themselves from defeat when all looked lost. Frank Lampard did not turn in one of his more glittering performances of Euro 2004 against Portugal, but his late strike ensured that England at least had a ticket for the penalty lottery at the end. However, there was always an air of resignation about the whole affair, and it was no surprise when the glove-less Ricardo saved Vassell's spot-kick, and that following another skied effort from the hopelessly under-performing David Beckham. Rubbing salt into the wounds, Ricardo followed up his penalty-saving heroics by smashing the ball past David James to send the home side into a semi-final with either Holland or Sweden.

And so 'our time' has passed once again. Even today, having had the evening to think about it, Eriksson is refusing to accept that his negative tactics played a part in England's demise. All the talk is of hard-luck stories and heroic efforts in defence. It is true that England defended stoutly, particularly Ashley Cole. However, even he had a tendancy to give the ball away as soon as he had won it from the ever-threatening Ronaldo. It is this failure to hold on to possession and present a realistic attacking threat throughout the games against both France and Portugal that have ultimately cost us a chance at glory. It is perhaps most galling to note that this is a side capable of playing dominant, attacking football to great success as they showed against Croatia only a few days previously.

My knee well and truly jerked, I can only now join the rest of the England fans in transferring my thoughts to qualification for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. What price another penalty shoot-out exit to the hosts?

Stephen Orford

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