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?
After our triumphant topping of Group Nine last time around, we’re off to the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan next summer. Sadly our perennial nemeses Germany also made it through the playoff after a 2-0 aggregate win over Croatia, but no matter. We have nothing to fear from them any more.
It’s a brand new year and, as such, the groups for the tournament have just been drawn. I’m delighted to report we have avoided a dreaded Group of Death and should qualify top, but we will have to be wary. Austria and co-hosts South Korea are banana skins if ever I’ve slipped on one.
The FA want a quarter final place at the bare minimum, which should be possible, but then again our second-round opponents will be one from Group D: Mexico, Sweden, Turkey, or – you guessed it – Germany. Assuming we qualify from what looks like a straightforward group, it looks like the knockout rounds will be testy from the get-go.
I feel happy about my two systems. The 4-4-2 for stronger opponents where a bit of structure and directness will play to our strengths and the 4-1-3-1-1 for when we need to kick someone’s back doors in. I’m also pretty happy about most of my personnel, assuming we don’t have any major injuries – but if we do, I need alternatives. That’s why our pre-tournament kickabouts with Croatia and the Netherlands will be games of experimentation.
We’re missing Southgate, Rio, Scholes, Owen and Andrew Cole through injury anyway, so there are already opportunities for others to show what they can do. Michael Bridges has 15 goals in 17 games for Leeds along with a 7.95 average rating, so I feel like he deserves a shot in the squad and I also bring Michael Dunwell back in because I’m certain he’ll score if I give him the chance. I call up John Terry and Chris Perry as new centre-halves, the former starring for Chelsea and the under-21s and the latter with the highest tackles per game in the whole of England, so they seem like good choices.
As AMC, I introduce the precocious Joe Cole to proceedings. David Dunn is also a cracking little player and is on the fringes of my thoughts, but for now, we’ll see what these lads have got to offer. And, you know what? Let’s swap Danny Mills for definitely English Mike Duff just for a laugh.
Well, what we’ve learned here is that Croatia are far too good for such an aggressive approach. They basically mop the floor with us in the first half and we’re lucky to only be 1-0 down at the break, so when half-time comes, I make sweeping changes. We return to 4-4-2, Bowyer and Dunwell are replaced by Fowler and Bridges who go up top together and the second half is far better.
We still don’t create as many chances as I’d like, but we do finish with a draw; Fowler and Bridges combine for the latter to notch his first international goal. Not a great game, but on the positive side, I have learned a lot, which is more than can usually be said of me.
I’m also surprised to be playing at a stadium nobody’s heard of, but since I can’t hire any backroom staff, that cartographer I found on Gumtree will have to remain unemployed.
Despite my desperation to play CM01/02’s heroes for England, it seems that international football has come too soon for them. No matter, I’m sure by the time we’re swashbuckling our way to Euro 2004 glory, Duff will be whipping in the crosses and Dunwell will be bicycle-kicking them into the top bins. For now, though, tried and tested looks like it’ll be the way to go.
Alright Bobby, settle down. I don’t think anyone expects us to win the World Cup, including me, but since I’m being forced to respond, I decide not to say “we have no expectation anyway” and instead declare that we will be in the “final reckoning”. A little dramatic, granted, but it’s not every day that one of the only Englishmen to win the thing tells you you’re rubbish.
For the Netherlands friendly, I return to a more established squad. Most of our strikers are still injured so there’ll be no Owen or Andrew Cole again, and I also drop Dunwell to replace him with the Premier League’s top-scoring Englishman, Kevin Phillips. There are also several other squad changes that you’ll see below. I decide to give Gareth Barry a go at left-back as he’s been impressing everyone this season and Owen Hargreaves also arrives at Stansted on the early flight from Munich.
Days before the game we lose Bridges to a hamstring pull and I’m starting to rue our constant injury problems. Jermain Defoe comes up from the under-21s to round out the squad, but we’re also nursing knocks to Paul Scholes, Joe Cole and Robbie Fowler. In fairness, it’s no surprise considering I can’t appoint any physios. It’s just me running around the training pitch with a tube of Deep Heat and there’s only so much of it the players will eat before they start to feel worse.
Bearing all that in mind, we line up to face the Dutch thusly. Can I get a tune out of the Gerrard/Lampard axis?
It’s another draw, but this time it’s a decent game and a good result. As a wounded England side against an overpowered Dutch juggernaut, I think we did well. We defended bravely, we thanked David Seaman gratefully for keeping van Nistelrooy and Kluivert at bay and while we could easily have lost here, we didn’t. We held our own. It’s not a landmark performance or result, but I’m encouraged. To hell with you, Sir Bobby Charlton. We are mixing it with the big guns. Everyone at Unknown Stadium can see it.
With that, I’m tasked with picking my 23 for the World Cup and it’s not easy. For the first time in my whole reign, we don’t have any injuries to worry about – it’s carte blanche.
My first choice team is set, at least. David Seaman will be my number one for as long as he’s an active player, and Nigel Martyn and Richard Wright are perfectly good deputies. Defence is also easy enough. My starting back four is clear, while I also take Terry, Woodgate, Neville and Carragher to cover all but the worst injury crisis.
Midfield also presents a question for which I have an answer. Joe Cole will line up on the left, with Gerrard, Scholes and Beckham completing the four. Dyer, Bowyer, Lampard and McManaman, again, should cover us in the event of any problems. Up front, it’s tough. Owen is obvious, but the rest less so. In the end, I go for Heskey for the option of going direct, Fowler because he’s a genius and my final striker (who you can’t see on the list because of that darn scroller) is Kevin Phillips. He’s the top-scoring Englishman in the Premier League, beating the rest by a distance and after he just notched his first goal for us, I feel like he deserves a seat on the plane.
Our group starts with a shock win for Costa Rica over Austria and in even better news, the Austrians lose their two first-choice central midfielders to injury… and I’m not sure they really have much in the way of backup. Great news, but not my primary concern – the first thing we’ve got to worry about is overcoming South Korea on their own turf.
This is the XI I’m beginning the tournament with. We’ll start cautiously with the 4-4-2 and plan to kick into the more attacking system if it isn’t working out. Now get out there, you 11 Lions of war! Bring it home!
An 11th minute direct free kick is the only shot the hosts manage to put on David Seaman’s target, for which he rolls back the years to tip spectacularly over the bar. The Koreans do spend a reasonable amount of time in our half over the rest of the first 45, but they can’t trouble big Dave – however, our ambling about in midfield isn’t exactly the fireworks display I was after either.
At half-time we’ve seen a lot of the ball but we haven’t really created many chances. It’s a tough call on whether to stick or twist, but in the end I decide to stay the course rather than open ourselves up to what looks like a pretty aggressive Korean attack.
My steeliness and, let’s face it, blind luck are rewarded just two minutes into the second half. Becks finds a lovely ball through the middle of the park to Paul Scholes, who takes a few strides forward unchallenged before hitting a trademark drive that lashes past Kim in the South Korean sticks for 1-0 to England.
Roared on by the home fans, the men in red come back at us again and Sol Campbell is somehow beaten in the air by Choi, who can only head over the bar. But when Joe Cole picks up another Beckham pass, glides into the box and finishes for 2-0 on 72 minutes, the game is over. Scholes picks up his brace late on to put some gloss on the scoreline, but however you shake it, this is an excellent start to our tournament.
Next up are Costa Rica and since I’m feeling frisky, I decide to try to absolutely hammer them with my ultra-aggressive 4-1-3-1-1. Due to a draw in the other game, a win here guarantees our progress to round two, so why not do it with a cherry on top?
Yep, it’s fair to say that worked. Don’t be fooled by their keeper getting sent off, we were already 4-0 up and cruising when he brought down Owen to receive his marching orders. He probably just didn’t want to let any more goals in, bless him.
My half-time changes disrupted our flow a bit for the second half, but eight goals scored and none conceded in our first two games? I’ll take it. Also first international goals for Sol Campbell and Phil Neville, in for Ashley Cole who had a McRib injury, I think. I don’t blame him. They’re so moreish.
With that scoreline, only a double-figures victory for Costa Rica over South Korea in the final round of games will shake us from the top spot, so I switch back to 4-4-2 and rotate my entire outfield ten for the final group game against Austria, who are still without two of their three star players.
The game is completely even but Alex Manninger, Austria’s third “star” player, is outstanding in nets for them. He saves from Heskey, Phillips, Dyer, Terry, Neville, McManaman and Scholes when he comes on later, while at the other end, Roman Wallner converts two tap-ins to garner our first defeat in the tournament. Still, doesn’t matter, we finish top and the dark horses from Costa Rica come through with us after defeating South Korea 2-1. What a story!
We’re devastated to learn that Germany have only managed to finish third in their group, while Mexico have finished top and Turkey take second, making them our first knockout round opponents.
The second round starts and I really need to get the phone number of Costa Rica manager Alexandre Guimarães. Whatever they’re drinking over there, I want some.
However, that’s all well and good, but we’ve got a story of our own to write. I revert back to 4-4-2, restore my (let’s face it) far better players to the starting lineup and the minimum expectations I need to meet in order to keep my job are just 90 minutes away. Let’s go.
I really wish I could explain to you the tension that I felt during this match. I’ll try to break it down.
The first half was just all Turkey. They dominated the entire match and when we went 1-0 up through Robbie Fowler, it was against the run of play to such an extent that I don’t think the Turkish players really believed it had happened. Hakan Şükür very quickly redressed the injustice and only David Seaman prevented him from skittling us by the break.
Gathering the players in the dressing room, I made an observation that turned into a plan. Turkey were so aggressive I thought we might be able to sit back and whack them on the counter and, after making that tweak, the second half swung back in our favour. Suddenly we were peppering the Turkish goal with howitzers from all over the place, but as 90 minutes arrived, nobody had managed to make the breakthrough. Extra time loomed.
I made it through the first half of extra time with only six minor strokes, although one could have just been a hard sneeze. However, my decision to replace Paul Scholes with the more dynamic Kieron Dyer was starting to pay dividends, as the Turkish defence groaned and creaked to try to stop him tearing through them.
He had shot after shot either saved or blocked, but eventually, his persistence was the difference. He won the ball back in midfield and laid it off for David Beckham, who pushed past Nuri and unleashed an absolute rocket that exploded past Ömer and in for a golden goal winner!!
My nerves are coleslaw as we trudge back to the hotel. Awaiting us in the quarter-finals? Spain.
Costa Rica’s dream ends at the hands of France in a 4-1 drubbing, which is a shame, while Argentina beat Brazil and Italy overcome the Netherlands.
We are the final fixture of the round and I’ll be honest, I’m terrified. We’re basically full-strength, though Joe Cole is only at 88% so I’ll start Steve McManaman in his place, but Spain are Spain. Granted, this is a few years before the tiki-taka Spain who took over the world, but still, Raúl worries me greatly.
The honest assessment of this game is that it’s a drab 90 minutes. Raúl does his best to give the crowd their money’s worth by testing Seaman like a fertility clinic, while Francisco Javier de Pedro dances around Beckham and Neville every chance he gets, but it’s not enough. We prod and probe at the other end, but even after 120 minutes, we’ve shared only seven shots on target with our opponents and unfortunately penalties are the solution.
I’ve taken off Scholes and Fowler in an attempt to spark some life into our performance but that has also shorn us of two of our best spot kickers. It doesn’t look good. Hopefully, big Dave can save my skin…
… nope. Owen, Macca and Stevie G all miss their pens, and we’re out at the quarter-final stage of yet another major tournament. The Football Association immediately declare they expect the team to qualify for the Euros, which I guess means I’m not getting sacked – phew. I did have a bit of a sweaty moment for a second there.
In a bizarre turn of events, Italy reach the World Cup Final against Argentina, sack Giovanni Trappatoni and appoint Claudio Ranieri as their head coach the day before international football’s most prestigious fixture. Welcome to the big dugout, Claudio. No pressure!
I guess, good decision? Who knows what goes on in Rome, quite frankly.
We’ll be back next time with our Euro 2004 qualifying campaign, and – spoiler alert – there’s a local derby on the way…
Tune in next week for Episode Three.