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?
We sensibly warm up for the biggest tournament of our lives (read: my life) with a friendly against the hosts, Portugal, in Lisbon, in our final fixture of 2003.
Upon confirming my squad, I’m hit with an injury apocalypse to the DMC position that leaves me with the unenviable decision of whether to call up Sean Gregan or Seth Johnson as cover for apparently now first-choice Michael Carrick, since Sean Davis, Steven Gerrard, David Prutton and Owen Hargreaves (who I don’t rate that highly anyway, but my goodness) are all crocked.
In the end, I plump for 29-year-old Gregan, who has one of the highest average tackles-per-game in England and an average rating of 7.56 for Preston. He’s not going to play, of course. I just like having new faces around the place. Ones without the normal scowls.
We go with the 3-5-2 to which I’ve become rather affectionate. John Curtis has started the season brilliantly for Blackburn, far more so than the horrible numbers being posted by both Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell, while John Terry and Ugo Ehiogu continue to be monstrous for Chelsea and I can see no reason not to unleash them.
Carrick is the most glamorous option for DMC so he sits behind Bowyer and Becks, my two most consistent (I think, I’m not really using stats for this) CMs, while Kieron Dyer has generally impressed me throughout this challenge – especially since I moved him behind the striker, so that’s where he stays.
As for my centre-forward, I give Jermain Defoe the nod. Nobody I’ve played in the lone striker role has really impressed me; it’s been, quite literally, hit and miss.
Owen is nowhere near as prolific as he ought to be for either club or country, Robbie Fowler is always injured and Michael Dunwell has got three goals against the Faroe Islands but that’s about it. Nobody else is really stepping up to make that position their own. Could Defoe be my guy?
Four minutes in, Dyer has already forced Vítor Baía into tipping a rangy drive over for a corner and then, from the resulting set piece, slaps the crossbar with a flying header. He then takes a pass from Becks in midfield, drives through the Portuguese defence and cracks another shot on Baía’s target, before meeting a Bowyer cross with a bicycle kick that spins wildly into the crowd. He is just unreal – if he could just put a few of these efforts away I wouldn’t even need a striker.
As it happens, Defoe is also putting his shots on target but Baía is annoyingly equal to everything and at half time we’re still at zeroes, but it’s been a great display. Ignore the sixes and sevens and focus on Dyer, Defoe and Ehiogu’s aerial dominance. Portugal, by comparison, haven’t created a single chance yet. This is light-years away from the last time we played them.
Naturally, the first thing that happens in the second half is they win a free-kick on the edge of the box and João Pinto curls it into the top corner. Then after I make wholesale changes (this is a friendly, after all) and we huff and puff a few more shots on target that Baía naturally pushes away, in the last minute Pinto dribbles past my entire defence and lashes home a second goal for 2-0 and that’s how the game ends. Ridiculous, but there we are.
I cancel the squad’s New Year’s Eve party because I’m so disappointed about this result, not because they hadn’t RSVP’d anyway. I receive crickets in response, which I choose to believe is because they’re all ashamed.
The 3-5-2 system looks great until we don’t score. Genuinely, since we’ve been playing it we look superb as long as we nab the first goal, but when we don’t, we’re just like real-life England: the confidence slowly makes way for trepidation, we start making mistakes and becoming passive, and world-class players queue up to punish us.
Can that mentality be programmed into a 20-year-old management simulator? Spurs are in the middle of bottling the league title to Liverpool after having what looked like an unassailable lead at Christmas, so maybe the devs were decades ahead of their time. Or maybe I’m just flubbing this whole challenge.
Our next two friendlies, away to the Netherlands and then Czech Republic at our place (wherever that is) will probably be the games that confirm my inadequacy.
By my reckoning I’ve been England manager for two-and-a-half years and I still have yet to get any sort of decent result against a “big” nation, other than my very first win against Germany in Munich. We need to prove we can actually beat good sides before we get to the tournament, since we’re going to bump up against them almost immediately once we arrive.
Oh boy. Does anyone have a dusty old lamp laying around in a cave out the back of their house? I could really use a wish right now.
The prospect of facing the combined powers of Roma and Lazio along with an annoyingly strong Yugoslavia side in the group stages really troubles me. Russia, judging by the squads alone, are the weakest side in the group, but they do have perennial greatest-goalie-on-earth Ruslan Nigmatullin in nets, so even they might cause me a problem.
New FA Chief Executive Mark Palios’s expectations of a quarter-final finish are entirely reasonable, but my challenge is to win this tournament and nothing else will do. Just don’t tell him that.
Right then. Netherlands away and as usual, injuries are piling up so I won’t get a chance to play my strongest team. Bowyer, Ferdinand, Gerrard, Lampard, Defoe and Davis would all have been involved, but are being rubbed vigorously by their respective club physios, so they’ll stay at home.
There honestly isn’t a single English Premier League striker who I believe will do the business for me when it matters most, so while the time for experimentation should be over and I ought to use these friendlies to play my strongest side and see how they get on, I’m going to put Michael Dunwell up top because he’s the only forward I’ve got whose name I can actually visualise being on the scoresheet. So maybe I am playing my strongest (available) team. Who knows?
Among the many changes, there’s a surprise call up (even to me) for Celtic’s Tommy Smith. He’s playing up top for the Hoops, but he appears every time I filter for CMs, and his goals and assists record is exemplary. Without the thrust of either Bowyer or Gerrard from my midfield and with hardly any goals coming from my centre-forward, I need to pack as many guys as possible into the team who can drive into space and finish chances. God help me if we can’t get some sort of result here.
The day of the fixture I’m told that Becks has taken a slight knock and should be rested, so rather than risk him at 80%, I oblige. The Dutch squad is terrifying. What on earth have I gotten myself into this time?
You know what, this is a really creditable, encouraging draw. We take the lead twice but are pegged back on both occasions and in the end, 2-2 is a really good scoreline for us. The thing is, Holland are disgustingly good up front. Mark Van Bommel is their defensive midfielder, for goodness’ sake, but he’s got more goals and assists for PSV than most of my squad do for their clubs – and when you add him to Zenden, Seedorf, Davids, van Nistelrooy, and the rest, it’s amazing anyone ever beats them. I’m happy with this draw, I really am.
We now fast forward to the home game against the Czechs, for whom I have a far more complete squad, if still missing a couple of key personnel.
Sean Davis seems to be injured forever and misses out yet again, as do Michaels Owen and Carrick, but otherwise we’re in decent shape.
John Curtis has been poor for me in the past couple of games and while Rio is having another pretty terrible season for Leeds, he’s at least got the numbers to play his way back into any starting XI. Him, JT and Ugo should be virtually impenetrable at the back. Note my use of the words “should” and “virtually”.
Beckham is injured days before the game and taken out of the squad, so I replace him with Alan Smith. I’ve got enough midfielders already and if there’s one thing I actually need, it’s a bloody striker who can score a goal. Might as well keep trying them out until one of them actually does it.
I realise the moment I start the game that I’ve left John Curtis in the team (do you think that ever happens to real managers?), but he surprises me by doing just fine – and, in fact, so do the rest of them.
Against a Czech lineup loaded with talent – Petr Cech, Milan Baros, Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky, Vladimir Smicer, Tomas Repka and the rest – we completely dominate the game and our heroes once again come from midfield.
Lee Bowyer finally marks his outstanding England career over the past couple of seasons with the opening goal on 16 minutes, before Joe Cole smashes home a second just after half time.
I replace Dyer with Tommy Smith at the break and he’s extremely busy and lively, an encouraging performance indeed. Bowyer then adds gloss to the scoreline in the 72nd minute.
The Czechs naturally score with their only shot on target, as is tradition, but the real headline is that this is a superb performance and result. I might, might, finally be on the right track.
In the aftermath of the game I’m asked to write a pre-tournament column for the Guardian, so I make sure to provide the nation with appropriate levels of hope.
And so Euro 2004 looms and some huge decisions need to be made. I actually have a bit of a problem now because everyone is fit and I can only choose 23 players, so who makes the cut and who doesn’t?
Do the players who did well in those past two games make it even though they’re not big names, or do they make way? Does one good 45 minutes from Tommy Smith nudge him into the squad ahead of someone like Paul Scholes, who’s had another miserable season for Man Utd and has only made fleeting contributions to my cause? Do I actually play Gerrard or Beckham when Joe Cole, Dyer, Davis and Bowyer have been so great for me?
Some people would call it a good problem but I feel like I’m going to be slaughtered no matter what I do, so I spend a few sleepless nights obsessively going over my squad and making a number of head versus heart choices. In the end, this is what I go with.
Alan Smith is also in, just off the screen because of the silly scroller, but that’s my 23. Yes, there’s no Scholes. I’ve decided that the numbers just don’t lie, and he simply hasn’t done enough to make me take him.
Dunn, Cole, Smith, Davis and Bowyer have had amazing club seasons and deserve a shot, and they’re all so bloody dynamic, I think they give us our best chance of success.
Tommy Smith is a massive gamble, I realise, and I might get rinsed for that one, but really, genuinely, honestly – if we were a goal down and chasing, I’d rather bring him on than Scholes. I’d have more faith that he might make something happen. It’s just a gut feeling, but that’s all I got.
Kirkland will go into the tournament as my first-choice keeper; not a great time to change your goalie, but Robinson is a bit flappy and Liverpool, with big Chris in nets, just won the Premier League, so it’s about time.
My defence is pretty clear and with Davis back, both Gerrard and Beckham probably won’t start for me. Harsh, but how can I overlook Bowyer, Joe Cole and Dyer? They’ve been the primary scorers of all my goals recently; I just don’t see how I can drop them.
Up top is rough, but I think Alan Smith is going to start. He’s got the most about him. Owen should be an automatic choice but he’s anything but; barely scoring in the games I’ve played him and not even really troubling opposing back lines.
Defoe has had the same problem, but Smith, against the Czechs, was superb – he’s young and keen and zesty and I like his hair. Out of the three, I feel like he might be the only one who might accidentally score. Dunwell misses out entirely, which is a shame for all of us, but let’s be honest: he really didn’t do that well. I feel sad writing it, but there it is.
Roma, brimming with Italian international talent, win the Champions League Final against Dortmund, as you’d expect – which brings us to the opening of the European Championships and our first game against the reigning world champions.
Depressingly, they are at full strength and anything other than a bare-bottomed spanking will be a remarkable result.
Here goes nothing.
For half an hour, the game is a horrible stalemate that has so much tension that I’ve ground my teeth down to a fine powder. So you can just imagine the explosion taking place in my dugout on exactly 30 minutes as Bowyer and Joe Cole combine in midfield to flick a ball through the Italian defence for Alan Smith, who takes a touch before RIFLING past Abbiati for 1-0!
BUT IT’S DISALLOWED! Dyer, not involved, was apparently offside and I take off down the touchline to scream bloody murder at the assistant referee as the game continues.
Smith sweeps a ball wide left for Ashley Cole, who takes it down the flank and crosses back to Smith… he wins the header against Totti, who’s back defending for some reason! I’ve just asked the assistant if his flag is made of braille! SEAN DAVIS IS IN THE AREA!
GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL ENGLAND! Sean Davis crashes home his first international goal and we’re 1-0 up at half time!!
I decide not to make any changes at the break and, in fact, I don’t make any changes until well into the second half. The players are doing so well that I feel like anything I do will just interrupt our flow, and I’d hate to act like I know what I’m doing.
The game is genuinely all us. When Kirkland easily catches a Totti free-kick in the 65th minute, I finally start to think we could win this game. I realise I’ve spent the past hour just waiting for the Italians to get their inevitable equaliser.
But when I swap the tiring Dyer for Dunn in the 73rd minute, they still haven’t put a shot on target. Then, I take out Bowyer for the free-kick expertise Becks on 81 and they still haven’t troubled Kirkland.
Granted, by now Christian Vieri has hit the crossbar twice and I’m making a constant low gurgling sound, but after a final Italian corner is thumped clear by John Terry, the referee blows his whistle… and it’s over. It’s over!! We’ve beaten Italy!!
Well, well, well. What a performance that is and at exactly the right time!
In the other game in our group, Russia’s Yegor Titov lives fully up to his name and gets red carded in the first minute against Yugoslavia, who proceed to decimate them 3-0 in Braga. And so, after one round of games, our old mates from qualifying are in their familiar spot: ahead of us on goal difference.
Then, a huge turn-up for the books: Yugoslavia and Italy play out a 0-0 draw, which not only opens the door for us to qualify for the next phase with a win against Russia, but also means that should we get even one point in that game, the Italians’ chances of survival are on seriously thin biscotti. And they’re not the only giants who are falling by the wayside…
Anything could still happen of course, but France going down 2-0 to Sweden along with Germany and Portugal flailing in their respective groups is a real surprise.
It’s all great news for me, to be honest. I feel like, despite all the years of turmoil in the lead up to this tournament, I might have brought England to the boil at exactly the right moment, while our rivals are struggling. The question is, can we keep it up against the group’s weakest side and muscle our way into the knockout rounds?
Ugo Ehiogu’s yellow against Italy means he’s suspended for this game (I can’t believe bookings from qualifying carry over) but other than Rio coming in to replace him, we’re like-for-like. Same again please, lads?
Quite honestly, when Joe Cole drives us into a ninth minute lead, we never look back. The whole first half is all red everything and although we don’t put many chances on target, we do slap the post and the crossbar via Ashley Cole and Alan Smith respectively.
Right on the 45, Bowyer intercepts a Smertin pass and drives all the way through midfield, over to the right-hand side of the box and clips a ball to the back stick where Alan Smith heads home for 2-0 at the break. I find Russia’s lack of Nigmatullin encouraging.
The second half is a little more troublesome than I’d like and we noticeably miss Ehiogu in our back three. Without him, Terry and Woodgate look a bit shaky either side of Ferdinand and Russia do manage to break their lines a few times – but on all three occasions, Kirkland stands tall to deny them the goal they may well have deserved by the time the final whistle blows.
No matter; we’ve played two, won two, no goals conceded and the knockout rounds are coming our way.
And so, once again, we’ve got a straight shootout with Yugoslavia to decide who will finish top of our group. I’m drunk with deja-vu… and gin.
We have a number of players at less than 100% fitness, so even though I really want to finish top, I decide to rotate a bit. Quite a lot, actually. Becks is the only person who has a yellow and would be suspended if he got another, but that’s okay. He’s not first choice any more. My eye just twitched as I wrote that.
Part of me feels like I have to take credit for the way we’re playing at this tournament, but then the other, more familiar part of me has no idea why this is suddenly happening now and hasn’t been the rest of the time. That aside, the reality in this game is that rather than be constantly troubled by Yugoslavia, we instead smash our qualifying rivals all over the pitch for 90 minutes.
One thing I’m certainly accepting praise for via email is the very questionable last-second call up for Tommy Smith, a decision for which I could have been harangued by England fans for the rest of my life.
Instead, wee Tommy completely justifies my faith with a virtuoso performance for the ages. He first skips past four Yugoslav challenges to welly home the opener just before half time and then lashes home a Michael Owen knock down to complete the rout in the 80th minute – by which time lil’ Mickey has already added a goal himself, putting the gloss on a truly excellent performance. If we keep this pattern up, we should win the final 6-0.
With a heavy heart, I must report that Italy beat Russia 3-1 and combined with our unflinching demolition of Yugoslavia, it’s enough to put them into the next round with us. I almost wish we’d drawn, but you won’t hear me complaining about nine points from nine, no goals conceded, and a second round game against one of the other teams we’ve convincingly thrashed in the last couple of months…
Also, look at Greece. They’re going to bloody well do it again, aren’t they?