When Luka Modrić and Vedran Čorluka step out onto the Luzhniki pitch on Wednesday night, they will be in an army of two. The pair, once team-mates at Tottenham, are the only survivors from Croatia’s famous victory at Wembley in November 2007, when Steve McClaren’s selection gamble saw England miss out on a place at Euro 2008.
Both have been stable presences since then, offering some sense of continuity while each racking up a century of caps, but England’s path to their World Cup semi-final has in its own way been firmly influenced by that rainy night, even if the personnel have changed.
They will be led out by Gareth Southgate, the man who replaced McClaren at club level when the Middlesbrough boss took the England job, but the Three Lions’ path to this critical moment could have been very different had the visitors not emerged victorious more than a decade ago.
McClaren’s appointment in 2006 was meant to be a break from the stale tournament displays under Sven-Gõran Eriksson. The ‘Golden Generation’ had failed to get beyond a quarter-final in a major tournament, and attempts to keep faith in youth had seemed to reach its limit with the call-up of Theo Walcott for the 2006 World Cup. England were happy to be seen to be trusting of younger players, more so after Wayne Rooney’s international breakthrough at Euro 2004, but we weren’t expecting them to actually play, were we?
Rooney, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick were the only players under the age of 25 to start a game for England at the 2006 World Cup, compared to nine in 2018. McClaren, however, had overseen the development of young talents as an assistant at Manchester United and started homegrown youngsters Stuart Parnaby (24), Stewart Downing (21) and James Morrison (20) in the UEFA Cup final for Middlesbrough. If anyone would refuse to let players live off past glories, it was him – and so it proved with the sidelining of David Beckham, among others.
The 2008 qualifying campaign came just as Germany’s post-2000 ‘rip it up and start again’ approach was kicking into gear, and England might have been able to benefit from the same. McClaren was bold in the Croatia game, handing 22-year-old goalkeeper Scott Carson his competitive debut and backing teenager Micah Richards – who had fewer than 100 professional games under his belt – at right-back.
Ultimately, Carson’s error gave Croatia an early lead and Richards stood off Mladen Petrić as the winger netted the second-half winner. Any semblance of long-term thinking died then and there.
“Most of the major football nations aspire to win the World Cup; England’s ambition is to become the first to buy it.”
That’s how Patrick Barclay described England’s appointment of Fabio Capello as McClaren’s successor, adding that “The Italian’s appointment confirms that the people who gave the game… to all others have so run out of ideas, tactics, teachers and guiding principles that they cannot even learn from their own mistakes.”
Meanwhile Martin Keown, who would go on to co-commentate on England’s victory over Sweden at the 2018 World Cup, said of Capello: “I think the players will know their roles. I don’t think it will be sexy football but we want to win and qualify for competitions and I think this is the best man for the job.”
Many other reactions carried the same bottom line, namely that England weren’t a poor side, but rather one made up of temporarily embarrassed millionaires. They had given others a chance, but the marriage of great manager and great players made recovery an inevitability.
It was international football’s equivalent of Manchester United’s post-Ferguson decline: having found their long-term plan needed, well, a few years to reap rewards, they decided to double down on the quick fix they’d hoped to avoid, only to then learn even that wasn’t the sure thing they had in mind. McClaren and Carson weren’t seen as proof of poor choices, but rather of the flaws in anything other than the obvious choice – it was akin to a blackjack player hitting on 19 and concluding that gambling never works.
Yes, England made it to the 2010 World Cup with a game to spare – with a cathartic double over Croatia to boot – but when the tournament rolled around, the squad could hardly have been more ‘tried and trusted’.
Even Walcott was nowhere to be seen in South Africa, something which can perhaps itself be traced back to England 2-3 Croatia: that result put Russia into the Euros at England’s expense, prompting a breakout tournament for Andrey Arshavin and a move to Arsenal. One of the men to suffer amid the Russian’s breakthrough was Walcott, who – even when free from niggling injuries in the 2009/10 campaign – lost out to the big-money signing for a starting place in the big home Champions League games against Porto and Barcelona.
Just four squad members were aged 24 or younger in 2010, and even two of those (Rooney and Aaron Lennon) were at their second World Cup. The average age of the squad – 28.4 years – was higher than all but one other country at the tournament, and it showed as Capello’s side were run ragged by a more youthful Germany in the last 16.
The Germans’ trust in the process over the individuals was evident here. The two teenagers risked in a crunch game against the Czech Republic at Euro 2004 – a game which Germany lost – had not been thrown by the wayside afterwards; instead, Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger would both start and thrive six years on.
This may well have planted a seed for England, confirming that while Carson and Richards were imperfect fits, it might still be worth letting young players ease their way in and be forgiven the occasional mistake. The England of today are playing with a freedom which only comes with those who know failure isn’t new. Yes, we also have the unique circumstances of Southgate’s appointment as mitigation, but this wouldn’t be enough to relieve the burden had England not failed before and failed in so many different ways.
If England needed that Croatia defeat to justify one last crack at the ‘ageing squad showing us all what they’re (in)capable of’ genre of tournament, perhaps we can be thankful: an alternate reality featuring a similar exit from a naïve team under McClaren’s tutelage might well have seen the powers-that-be do a 180 and return to the old guard for future tournaments.
As much as we’ve seen evidence that “never again” often means “actually, yeah, again” in England terms, perhaps we should be relieved that the McClaren era died before in was given enough of a chance to prompt sympathetic re-writings of history while the perpetrators and victims still had time to reunite at the scene of the crime.
As far as butterfly effects go, it’s hard to look back beyond the scandal which prompted Sam Allardyce’s departure and the decision to hand the reins to Gareth Southgate in September 2016, but even that may owe a debt of gratitude to McClaren’s final stand.
By retreating to the big-name appointment of Capello, followed by the relatively long-termist deployment of Roy Hodgson, there was already less of a risk in the former Boro defender’s instalment. With each passing failure or disappointment, the easier it has become to look at someone like Southgate as merely an inexperienced manager, and not just another potential McClaren. Eventually we reach a critical mass of botched tournaments that we begin to ask ourselves “Are we out of touch? Yes, the children are right.”
One key part of the reaction to Southgate’s appointment wouldn’t have felt possible without an environment of past failures: a portrayal of restraint as a positive. “Those who lack arrogance have certainly flourished at the helm of great sides,” wrote The Independent’s Ian Herbert, while The Telegraph’s Jason Burt argued “The 46-year-old has cut an impressive, sure-footed and determined character who has communicated impressively, commands respect and cut through the problems England face. Whether he finds the solutions remains to be seen.”
It’s hard to imagine these words being spoken with such warmth without the McClaren hiccup; hard to see doubt over “the solutions” presented as an afterthought rather than the thought. After running through the various ways we may learn from 2007, after avoiding qualifying drama and sidestepping poorly-timed selection gambles, we’ve seen Southgate ease England into a softly-softly approach and – with some notable exceptions within the media – attempted to remain similarly calm and subdued.
Win or lose against Croatia, we’ll eventually reach a point when the powers-that-be in the England setup decide the 2018 approach has become stale and it’s time to go with an established name. It might be in 2022, it might be in 2026, or it might take even longer than that.
Whenever it happens, we’ll just have to hope *spins wheel* José Mourinho is ready to set the cycle in motion once more.