CM01/02: The Golden Generation Project (Episode 1)

The challenge: CM01/02 superfan Mike Paul is replacing Sven-Goran Eriksson in the England hot seat as he tries to lead the Golden Generation to the unprecedented glory nostalgic social media posts tell us they should have achieved. But is it really coming home?

This summer’s delayed 2020 European Championships marks 55 years since England won their only major international tournament at the barely referenced 1966 World Cup. In the intervening years, the Three Lions have almost always graced FIFA’s top 10 list and successive managers have overseen some of the best individual players to come out of the country.

But, in terms of a whole squad full of world-class talent, few were as good as the precocious Golden Generation who – some say – should have won Euro 2004 in Portugal before Wayne Rooney went off injured in that horrible penalty shootout defeat to the hosts. Poor form, poor tactics and over-expectation were among the reasons cited for England’s failure to bring the big tin pot over to Blighty.

So, bearing that in mind… what would happen if a different manager was given the chance to take his very own Golden Generation all the way to European glory? Would it make any difference if another bum was in the hotseat, Rio Ferdinand wasn’t suspended and someone actually put a tackle in on Rui Costa?

Put it this way: over-expectation won’t be a problem this time.

Mike Paul, England manager

Yes, rub your eyes all you want – it’s happening. That guy who managed Rushden & Diamonds and then some Spanish team nobody’s heard of has just been put in charge of the England national team after some very enthusiastic handshakes with Adam Crozier. He was apparently considering Sven-Göran Eriksson for the job, the maniac. A foreigner? In charge of England? What would the Daily Mail say (don’t check)?

No, there’s no room for a Swede in the big chair at Wembley. Instead, it’s been handed to an altogether different vegetable. And, though this challenge is all about taking England to glory at the Euros in 2004, I have a more immediate problem: the looming 2002 World Cup.

It’s fair to say I haven’t been dealt a great hand in terms of where we sit right now. While I weep for the departure of my predecessor Kevin Keegan, that miserable defeat to Germany in our last game at the old Wembley was unforgivable. A broom with an England jacket draped over it led the team to a draw and a win against Finland and a further three points from Albania, but all in all, we begin in a rather perilous position in Group 9.

And, of course, the FA take one look at the fact we’re six points behind Germany with three games to play and give me some nice, realistic expectations.

Of course they do. And so, dear reader, we set out on this adventure to win Euro 2004 with the very real prospect that I could be in the bin before the end of the calendar year. 

As you can probably tell from our upcoming fixture list, there’s one thing I want to bring over from Sven’s real-life legacy as England boss: that certain night in Munich on September 1st, 2001.

My first task as manager will be to decide which of our brave Lions will come with me to try to tame Rudi Völler’s Mannschaft in a similar manner to that glorious night in Munich. The original lineup was, by all accounts, a pretty solid one.

And just to absolve myself of almost all responsibility from the word go, I decide that if it worked then, I don’t see why it shouldn’t work now. The squad at my disposal is a curious one – there are all the familiar names, minus Nick Barmby and plus Alan Thompson and Rod Wallace. Sorry, lads, for the time being at least, you’ll be staying on zero caps.

England squad CM01/02

England squad CM01/02 v2

I also bin Michael Gray because I don’t think we need three out-and-out left backs and in comes the aforementioned Barmby, along with Jamie Carragher and Funtime Frank Lampard, who isn’t quite the finished article he’ll become in future years, but we lack depth in the middle of midfield and Lee Bowyer is injured.

Frank Lampard CM0102

Jamie Carragher CM01/02

Nick Barmby CM0102

In truth I don’t rate Barmby that highly, but he was in the starting XI for that 5-1 thrashing and who am I to pick a different side? The new manager? Don’t be absurd.

And with that, there’s nothing left to do but put my feet up and wait for September to roll around…

… or rather August 18th, when I’m asked to submit my final squads for the matches against Germany away and Albania at home. Okay, you damned Lions. This is it. We’re off to Munich. 

Phil Neville sprains his ankle going up the stairs onto our Easyjet flight so he’s replaced at the very last second by Danny Mills, but no matter. The players who will actually be taking part are still ready and raring to go. 

Upon arrival at the Olympiastadion, I sit the players down in the dressing room for the first time and talk them through my starting XI. We’re lining up in the classic four-four-fudgin-two that brought the real England one of our most famous modern victories: Sol and Rio at the back, Ashley Cole and G Nev either side, with Scholes and Stevie G in the middle, Becks on the right, Barmby on the left, and Owen up front with Heskey. A 5-1 win feels almost inevitable. Let’s see if the Germans start Carsten Jancker…

… they don’t, and in fact they play an almost unrecognisable side from the one England beat on that fateful night, the spoilsports. A sudden pang of doubt strikes me. Have I made an appalling mistake? No, no. It’s the Germans who are wrong.

The game starts and I eagerly await the first goal, which originally went against us in the sixth minute. Steven Gerrard picks up the ball in midfield and drives at the German defence, something I’ve specifically instructed him not to do. I await the inevitable turnover and counter-attack… but it doesn’t come. Instead, Gerrard tears past Ballack and towards the German back line. He’s past Nowotny! Gerrard shoots!!

ENGLAND IN DREAMLAND! With the very first attack of the game, Steven Gerrard has rifled a shot high past Oliver Kahn and we’re a goal up in Munich after five-odd minutes instead of a goal down! Oh god! Are we going to lose 5-1!

No, and in fact minutes later, it could be two. Beckham slides a ball through to Michael Owen who’s only denied by a flying save from Kahn, and before the half is over, Kahn is in action again to parry an Emile Heskey header away from danger! David Seaman makes a couple of fairly routine saves from Klose and Albertz and almost as quickly as it started, the first half is over – and we’re not only winning, we’re outplaying the Germans in their own back yard. 

After sucking on some half-time lemons to keep the players humble, I fire them back out for the second 45 and the truth of the opening exchanges is that Germany look far more dangerous. Seaman is forced into two fingertip saves from Klose and, just after the hour mark, I notice both Paul Scholes and Nick Barmby have struggled to make impacts in the game. In the 5-1 match, both of them were subbed off, so I stick to my guns and pull exactly the same move. On come Owen Hargreaves and Steve McManaman, respectively.

It pays immediate dividends. Macca tears down the left and pops a cross right onto the head of Heskey, Oliver Kahn saves again… but he can’t hold it! Michael Owen is lurking! OWEN!! IT’S TWO! IT’S TWO! We’re 2-0 up in Munich with 20 minutes to go!!

Völler, panicked, throws on the returning Fredi Bobic to cause some havoc in our penalty area and, as ordered, he gives me a series of small heart attacks by first knocking down for Neuville to smash straight at Seaman, then hammering a low drive at the bottom corner from the edge of the box that big Dave spectacularly turns round the post. 

The clock is ticking down as the corner comes in, Gary Neville wallops it clear… it’s over! It’s over! I can’t believe that worked! We’ve beaten the Germans again!

After being drowned in Franziskaner by the travelling fans and celebrating alone in my hotel room with a bottle of Jägermeister since the players only met me two hours ago, we triumphantly board the plane back home to await the arrival of Albania – a side both bottom of Group Nine and coming off a home defeat to Finland. Hopefully, this should be a routine win.

I don’t want to rock the boat too much from that stunning victory over Germany, but I do make two changes. Macca starts on the left in place of Barmby after his excellent cameo last time around and I also put Robbie Fowler up top with Michael Owen, replacing Heskey. I love Emile, but he had the bulk of our chances in that last game and couldn’t find the net. Fowler is a predator and if Gérard Houllier can keep him fit, I think he could be a vital player for us as we run through this challenge. 

I also change our mentality to Attacking (rather than Normal) and passing to Short rather than Direct. It feels like we’re going to need to break down a stubborn Albania defence and launching long balls at Michael Owen doesn’t feel like a great plan.

My tactics pay off, but my God, Albania made that difficult. Their formation amounted to five at the back with three DMCs, so this game essentially amounted to hurling Robbie Fowler at a brick wall over and over again and hoping he’d eventually score. But, as it tends to go with poor Robbie, he instead limps off injured in the 84th minute without a shot on target. Sorry, Gérard.

However, the constant shoeing of Fowler distracts the Albanian defence long enough for us to sneak victory from a highly unlikely source. On 35 minutes and after Robbie goes wide and shanks a cross at the back post, who should pop up to drill home the winner but Gary flipping Neville. It wasn’t pretty and their goalkeeper put in a textbook CM0102 performance to keep us at bay for the rest of the game, but ultimately Albania finished this contest without really leaving their half, so in a sense, it was barely a contest at all.

Delighted to preside over the Nev-ster’s first international goal, I turn to my bench to see I have no backroom staff to celebrate with and instead exchange an awkward high-five with Gareth Southgate. Christ, he’s a mop, isn’t he? Imagine if he was in charge!

That win combined with the dashing of the Germans leaves us top of the group with just Greece at home to play, knowing that as long as we get a better result against them than Germany do against Finland, we’ll qualify for the World Cup automatically. The Greeks are no slouches, but with any luck, we won’t be relying on a stoppage time free kick to save us this time.

Before I’m asked to choose my squad for Greece, I notice that my squad has been decimated by injuries. Losing Martin Keown and Jamie Redknapp isn’t the worst news since they probably wouldn’t have started anyway, but I’m also without Owen Hargreaves, Emile Heskey and Michael Owen. 

Ugo Ehiogu, Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer come into the squad to replace the first three, but my striking options are a little limited. Alan Smith is doing well for Leeds and the U21s, so I decide he’s worth a punt, but who to choose as my fourth striker… 

… I’m feeling frisky, you see. There are players lurking on this database who I know can score goals. Peter Weatherston has 11 in 13 for Queen of the South, but his average rating is only 6.92, so I’m not sure he’s England calibre just yet. No, I feel like looking for a name I recognise from my past. A man who should be playing in higher echelons of English football. A man who, in my experience, does nothing but score goals no matter where he plays.

You know what? It’s only Greece. Let’s see what Dunny is made of. 

I’m also forced to call up Nicky Butt when Steven Gerrard also gets crocked for Liverpool, becoming the fourth Lion on the shelf – and meaning my team for Greece is going to look very different.

The scare against Albania has made me rethink my tactics. Sure, the 4-4-2 worked a blinder against a bigger nation, but when the smaller ones try to sit back and play for a draw, we need a more aggressive system we can move into. That, combined with what I know about CM0102, leads me to the following formation.

I think taking a striker out and packing our midfield with runners will mean a more rigid defence will have to move around to mark us, hopefully drawing them out of position and leaving gaps we can exploit. Also, the middle is now well overpowered with some of our best players and there’s no doubt Cole and the Nevster can get up and down the flanks all day. 

Let’s see what Greece have to say about this.

Greece start stronger and I tell myself it’s because my players are just settling into my new system, not because I’ve made some horrendous miscalculation. A couple of corners are floated into our box, David Seaman is forced into two great saves and I’m concerned I might have flubbed this… but all of a sudden, ten minutes in, everything suddenly clicks. 

We spend the entire rest of the half battering Greece, with my midfield runners dominating proceedings. Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer, playing their first games for me today, lay down serious credentials to come to the World Cup as the former grabs a first-half brace via assists from the latter. Paul Scholes notches our third and although Udinese’s Dimitris Nalitzis scores an absolute worldie to peg us back right on the 45, it’s still a stunning half.

The second half is a breeze. Greece do probe and trouble us a couple of times, but Seaman keeps the ship steady at the back and up front, we are pure chaos. I bring Michael Dunwell on for Fowler at the break and he’s busy and lively, only thwarted from opening his England account by some unbelievable saves from Eleftheropoulos.

He can’t, however, prevent Paul Scholes from tapping in a rebound from another rangy Bowyer drive or stop Ashley Cole from converting a 90th minute penalty – how he managed to get that duty I’ll never know, but no matter. We have our 5-1 victory, over the wrong opponents, sure, but the important thing is we’re going to the World Cup!

Tune in next week for episode two.

CM01/02: The Golden Generation Project (Episode 1)
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