Thursday 22nd November 2007

It was 17:27, I had been in the car for twenty minutes and traveled less than half a mile. I was stuck in traffic in the Cressex Industrial Park, trying to get into town and to the train station. I rang Dave, he was already on a train to Wembley but his stopped at every station through North West London. I hope the cars ahead would start moving so I could make it into town and jump on a train.

It was 18:22, as I walked up the steps of Wembley Stadium train station. There in front of me, Wembley and the silver arch was all aglow. The setting was in place and I was really looking forward to the match, which was less than two hours away. I took out my N73, to take a photograph but it started buzzing, Niko was calling me. He was on time! There is a first time for everything. Even though it was early there was a big group of people making their way to the stadium, the train had been packed with standing room only. Thankfully it had been semi-fast, stopping only at Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross. I waited for a few minutes for Niko outside turnstile M. We went in but soon released that due to Uefa regulations there was no alcohol for sale. We grabbed some food and then chatted for a bit. We had plenty of time. This was the first time I had seen Niko for a while and our last real meeting had been at the same place back in August.

I had spoken about the match with colleagues at work and the Liverpool fan had said that Croatia would score early, England would constantly attack and in the 89th minute, Croatia would hit a killer blow on the break and win 2-0. I agreed that Croatia would score first and early. However, I expected this would be just the wake up call England would require to win the match and qualify. I was right about one thing, an early goal for the away side. I was lost for words when I discovered both Beckham and Robinson had been dropped. David James in goal would have been fine, he has the experience and has played our last European Championship campaign. What was Scott Carson doing between the sticks for his second ever international. I also did not agree with the formation, 4-5-1 is fine away from home and I could understand Steve’s thinking. Play for the draw, hit the long ball up to Crouch in case we get lucky. This plan exploded in his face within eight minutes.

There was a surreal atmosphere in the stadium as we took our seats. It was quite empty and we used up the time to chat about most things apart from football, just to take our names away from the match. Slowly the grounded filled up, as the count down went from hour to thirty minutes to kick off. It was raining, but not hard and you could see the pitch was in a right state. Then the players came out for their warm up and we knew it was a matter of time before kick-off. I was looking forward to the match, and had been all week but I sensed that there was a great air of uncertainty in the air.

We looked like the away side, Croatia were passing and controlling the match and we were chasing everything. Then as predicted, Carson misjudged the ball and we were a goal down. So far as I predicted, but it was to get worse. Much worse. The state of the pitch was not helping but the Croatian players, buoyed by their magnificent support making great noise in the car corner, controlled the first half. Their second goal was a class move, orchestrated by Arsenal striker, Eduardo de Silva and the English defence were all over the shop. The crowd booed at half time, although I was tempted I reserved judgment until full time. The all important goal back before half time never materialised.

Beckham and Defoe came on at half time, to great cheers from the crowd, particularly the man wearing the unusual number 17. What a burden! Yet for his time on the pitch, he played extremely well. Just a shame only Crouch was the other player anywhere near his wavelength. Switching to 4-4-2, England looked more threatening going forward but there was more uncertainty at the back. However, some how England fought back, got lucky with a penalty and then Beckham delivered a pinpoint cross for Crouch to bring down and score. The crowd went wild. We jumping up and down as Crouch came over to salute the fans. It was a miracle. We were down and out at half time but somehow, we had managed to get back into the game and had a foot on the plane to Austria & Switzerland. My friend, Niko looked over at me and said, “Let’s hope they hold onto it!”. I thought that Carson would have grown in confidence and he had made a great save, which would have killed us off at 2-0. It was not to be and to be honest England did not deserve to be there. As if the script had been written by a movie producer, Croatia scored their third and England were out. There was no way back. They kept hoofing pointless long balls up to Crouch but he was well marked. The last throw of the dice from McClaren was to throw on Bent. He had an opportunity to score but his short went over the bar and onto the top of the net. That was it, I knew England could not pull it back again. It was inevitable. Three minutes of stoppage time came and went. At the final whistle, the boos could be heard all around, while Billi? and his staff and player celebrated like they had won the World Cup. My final image (which is clear in my mind like a photograph) is a distraught David Beckham, clapping and thanking the fans. Could he find himself stranded on 99 caps forever?

There was a long queue as I walked back to the train station. I got out my Zen and listened to the radio. Unfortunately without AM (or DAB) I had to settle for LBC. Just my luck to find a presenter with no interest in football, fielding calls from angry and annoyed England fans. As I got down to the platform, I spotted Dermot Gallagher in the queue ahead. He was waiting for a train to his home in Banbury. The next train to arrive was heading to Aylesbury and packed. I scrabbled into the carriage but there was standing room only again. I gave up on talk radio and switched to some music to get me through. The first song that came on, took me back to memories of the summer of 2006. The Time Of Our Lives felt like a song written for a different generation and not just 531 days ago. The ironic thing is the song was produced by Steve Mac. I bet he could have done a better job as England Head Coach.

I got home just before midnight and switched on the television to Sky Sports News to hear what the man had to say for himself. After everything, he did not have the dignity to resign. Even Kevin Keegan for all his faults, was willing to expect the job was beyond and tendered his resignation in the toilets in the last game at the old Wembley in October 2000. To add insult to injury, he wouldn’t walk, he had to be pushed. Just sums up the FA, the people that are supposed to be running the game but instead just pile the money into their own wallets. I must end however, with a strange observation on this point. At what point did England start performance so badly? The moment the Three Lions shield was moved from the centre of the shirt to the top right. The emblem had gone from the heart, soul, passion, up to the chest. Where most people keep their wallets!

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