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?
With a textbook World Cup campaign in our rear view mirrors, we plough semi-triumphantly on to the Euro 2004 qualifiers. By way of a quick reminder, this is our group – some tasty tangles with Wales will obviously be the highlight.
First, though, my squad for Finland away and Yugoslavia at home. I’m keen to blood some new players throughout the next couple of years, especially in nets. As I said previously, David Seaman is my hero and will play for England until one of us gives up, but let’s face it – it’s probably going to be him who goes first. In fact, put it this way: if Seaman lasts longer with England than I do, then I’ve done something tragically wrong. It’s not out of the question.
Still, at 38, he’s almost certainly not going to make it to Euro 2004, so I need to get some alternatives into the squad. Nigel Martyn is also 35 and while he’s still number-one at Leeds, I have a feeling his understudy Paul Robinson will usurp him long before the tournament starts. Although David James was in goal throughout much of the Golden Generation run, if memory serves me correctly, I’m slowly moving away from them as time goes by. Robbo did get plenty of caps after all, plus our World Cup campaign wasn’t exactly stellar. It’s probably time to look at alternatives. Therefore, eyes are squarely on the youngster, along with Chris Kirkland in the England B side.
Left midfield is also a bit of a problem area for my 4-4-2 and England in general. I’ve thought about shoving Paul Scholes out there but every time I do, an electric shock jolts through my fingers until I move him back. That, combined with Macca turning 30 and his influence diminishing, kinda only leaves Joe Cole to take the number 11 jersey.
My options in reserve aren’t amazing, but there are some names who look like they could do a job. Lee Hendrie already has a cap, along with great numbers in all the right places: Pace, Acceleration, Flair, Dribbling, Crossing, Teamwork, Work Rate, Determination, Finishing – it’s all there. He’s a contender.
And of course, since this is CM01/02, I will have my beady eyes trained on former cap-winners Mike Duff and Michael Dunwell, along with Clarke Carlisle, John Welsh, John Curtis, Titus Bramble (shudder), Sean Davis, David Prutton, and, obviously, Cherno Samba. He has already made a huge career move, so there’s genuinely every chance he could become our Wayne Rooney just in time for Portugal.
The actual Wayne Rooney, sadly, isn’t likely to get into Euro 2004’s team of the tournament. I might give him a cap at some point as a nod to his real-life achievements with England, but unless he moves to Costa Rica for his training camps, I don’t think these numbers are going to develop into those of a global megastar.
And so, to Finland we go. We’re away so I’m starting with the 4-4-2 and there are no major surprises in the squad. Macca pulled out injured so up came Lee Hendrie, all my “usual” strikers are unavailable apart from Michael Owen, so Bridges starts with Phillips on the side. David Dunn and Ugo Ehiogu also make the 18.
This game is… an experience. Let’s put it that way.
First, I completely underestimate Finland and forget that they have some genuinely superb players in the likes of Jari Litmanen, Mikael Forssell, Aki Riihilati, Petri Pasanen and the annoyingly unbeatable Jussi Jääskeläinen. The first half is a tidal wave of home chances but ironically the Finnish can’t, er, finish and only manage to go in 1-0 up at the break through a Litmanen wonder goal. We actually have more shots on target by the end of the first 45 such is the profligacy of our hosts, but I don’t really feel like we’re actually troubling them.
At the break I switch from this damned Normal/Direct mentality that seems to cause nothing but trouble against everyone but Germany and instead go to my favoured Attacking/Short – and it does change things. The Finns are still lurking dangerously close to doubling their advantage but after an hour, Michael Owen equalises and then D-Becks taps in an Owen centre to give us the lead.
Then all hell breaks loose. First Beckham celebrates our lead by going in two-footed on Kolkka and is ejected. Then, for reasons I can’t explain, Ashley Cole walks up to Riihilati off the ball and hoofs him as hard as he can, earning our second early bath of the evening. All I can say is, it’s a good thing we’ve got Phil Neville in the squad. I bet you never thought you’d read that.
In the days following we also lose Lee Hendrie to injury, so I replace him with Tottenham’s Matthew Etherington for our home game against Yugoslavia – current group leaders after their 4-0 spanking of Wales last time around.
Well, this is annoying. Yugoslavia are irritatingly efficient and we’re fairly lucky, in truth, but it’s still very annoying. Alan Smith pumps home his first England goal just after half-time to give us the lead and with my defenders all playing superbly, it looks like a stout backs-to-the-wall win is on the cards. Then the ref decides Sol Campbell has backed into someone in the box, gives them an 84th minute pen and Petkovic converts it to steal a draw. It would have been a smash-and-grab win for us, sure, but I thought we’d earned it.
Slovenia also beat Wales, the poor buggers, to top the group after two rounds, but more worryingly… we aren’t looking very convincing. I might need to consider some changes.
The FA report they’re disappointed with the “level of performance” against the South Slavs, but I thought we performed just fine. It was the number of points we got that wasn’t so good. However, there’s still plenty of time to go in this group, no worries. I’m sure, with a few personnel and tactical tweaks, we’ll be pounding the pavements to Portugal in no time.
A month later we go to the Faroe Islands looking for a landmark victory and then welcome Slovenia to Unknown Stadium. As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been trying my best to line us up the way the real England did during this time period, in keeping with the whole “let’s try to rewrite history” brief. But, as time passes, I’m realising it’s possible that the reason we didn’t win anything is because we’re not putting our players in their strongest positions. Whoever would have thought?
The problem, though, is that it’s hard to know exactly how to line up this England team for optimal results. Our left flank is weak, so you’d think “ditch wide midfielders”, but then on the right we’ve got one of the best crossers the world has ever seen… he’s just not actually doing it. He’s suspended for the Faroes anyway, so I decide to capitalise on the fact that most of our best players prefer to be in the middle of the park and play an incredibly centralised formation, with just wing-backs for width.
I’ve no idea how much we’ll learn against a team like the Faroe Islands, but who knows? It might be the start of a revolution.
Yeah. I mean, this probably would have happened anyway, but it’s encouraging that the Faroes’ only “effort” on goal was a 30-yard free kick that sailed into the ocean. Their keeper finished on a seven for some reason, despite the fact that without him, we would have hit double figures easily. The real acid test will be against a better nation. Slovenia up next.
Yugoslavia beat Slovenia to go joint-top of the group with us and I’m left with a conundrum over who to play against them myself. Becks is back from suspension and as our captain I feel I have to play him, but what change to make?
I know how this is going to sound, but bear with me. Paul Scholes really isn’t doing much for us at the moment. Even against the Faroes, where he should have run the show, he was overshadowed by everyone around him. With a weird feeling in my chest, I take out Scholes, put the dynamic Dyer into AMC and land Beckham alongside Gerrard. David Prutton, I’ve decided, is a more rounded destroyer than Stevie G, so he’s quickly becoming my default DMC.
This feels… unusual. But maybe right?
Those of you who know me will testify that I’m not only devilishly handsome, I’m also an incredibly humble man. I know that because I make sure you do with those monthly stipends.
But against a swarthy hipster’s dream of a Slovenia side, my defence stood up to be counted yet again and when we needed someone to make the difference at the other end? Kieron flippin Dyer. Two goals, 4/4 shots on target, four completed dribbles – he was our main man. I hate to say it, but the fact is, he’s done more in that game than Scholes has done in this whole qualifying campaign so far. It’s a good problem to have.
That’s our last competitive game of the calendar year, but before we go, there’s the small matter of a friendly in Portugal next month. This will be the first real test of my exciting new formation, with no disrespect intended to Slovenia; Portugal are a team full of world-class superstars. Rui Costa, Figo, Nuno Gomes, Fernando Couto, Abel Xavier – they’re all there.
The real question is, if I’m enjoying this new system – and so far, I am – who are the best personnel for it? I can’t quite face the prospect of world-class hair-gel salesman David Beckham not being in my team, but I don’t know if the centre is the place for him, so does he stay just in case he pops a free-kick into the top bin? One of my three centre-halves always seems to get a 6; I assume the one who doesn’t have anyone to mark. But do I dare go to two at the back? It seems like madness, though I’ve seen it done.
I decide to use the friendly as a way to experiment, especially if Portugal use a 4-4-2, which I suspect they will. There are a few regular faces missing from the squad anyway due to injuries. Scholes says he’s got a hurty knee; I suspect that’s just where he keeps his pride. Gerrard has also got some sort of hamstring problem that I decide to let Liverpool worry about, while Matthew Etherington, who I’d forgotten was in the squad altogether, needs an extended lay down.
Blackburn’s other Paul Robinson, the left wing-back, looks pretty tidy so I decide to see what he’s made of. I also put the Leeds edition in goal just to confuse things, while trying out a midfield three of David Dunn, Kieron Dyer and Joe Cole. I know Dyer really impressed in AMC last time around and I haven’t forgotten, but his engine is so incredible that it actually makes more sense for him to start deeper if he can excel there. Cole has 20 for dribbling among other things and, in that advanced position behind a striker, he should be the best choice. Let’s see.
Also… okay. Don’t anyone admit this to him, but Chris Sutton is doing really well at Celtic and I want to try him out in an England shirt. There, I said it. Let’s just forget all about it unless he scores, at which point you’re allowed to say I’m a genius.
Yeah, no, okay. That didn’t really work. We showed glimpses of promise but Sergio Conceição tore our Paul Robinsons apart, beating the first down our left and then stinging the hands of the second on three separate occasions. It was also he who set up both of Portugal’s goals, crossing for Nuno Gomes to beat Ehiogu in the air for 1-0 and then sliding through to Sá Pinto for two.
All we managed were two Joe Cole efforts slashed wildly into the Estádio Nacional crowd and that was it. Man, this feels hopeless. No matter what I try, the big guns always have too much ammo for us. I’m not totally prepared to tear this plan up yet, but it’s another stinging lesson in advance of what’s meant to be a glorious Euro 2004 campaign: there’s still a ton of work to do.
Tune in next Thursday for Episode Four.