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?
Right then. We’re through the group stages of Euro 2004 with a perfect record and only three games sit between England and our first ever European Championship trophy. Sounds incredibly easy when I put it like that, doesn’t it?
Greece, sadly, aren’t going to bore us to death on their way to the final this time around as they’re lanced 2-1 by a newly-dominant Italy, while Spain also send Romania packing by the same scoreline.
Netherlands-Norway will be played after us, but we go first, and as you may well recall from the last episode, we once again face Czech Republic, a team we destroyed in our final pre-tournament friendly 3-1. I’m very much hoping my spunky, invigorated side will be able to turn out a similar result today.
I return to the team that did so well in our first two matches, but with renewed confidence that my subs can come on and make a difference should I need them.
I’m incredibly, almost overwhelmingly tempted to pick Tommy Smith instead of Kieron Dyer in the hole after his two-goal heroics against Yugoslavia but in the end, I choose to keep faith in a player who’s basically never let me down since I took over as manager. It’s brilliant to know my Tommy gun is there though, sitting comfortably next to me in his violin case, ready to be unleashed when our enemies least expect it.
It’s almost a carbon-copy of the friendly, even down to the Czechs having a single shot on target in the whole game which, of course, they convert to take the lead in just the fifth minute.
Then again, when Gary Neville gets up to head home your equaliser you can be pretty sure it’s going to be a good day at the office – and it’s game over as Joe Cole puts us 2-1 up just before the break.
Bowyer ices the cake with a third on 87 minutes, but of course, we can’t just have nice things – Chris Kirkland, who’s been tremendous in the tournament so far, is forced off injured with 12 minutes to go and I can only offer thoughts and prayers that it’s not too serious.
It is serious. Kirkland is out for three weeks with a damaged foot and his tournament is over. Robbo has got some huge boots to fill. Seriously, Kirkland is 6’6, have you seen the size of them?
Well, you’d better get stuffing the toe section Paul, cos our semi-final is against…
Yep, the other team we played a friendly against before the Euros began. Does Mark Palios have precognition or something?
As you’ll no doubt remember, that game ended 2-2. We not only took the lead twice, but actually looked pretty tidy against a Dutch side that oozes disgustingly with world-class talent.
They do have a few injuries in their squad, but sadly they’re to Winston Bogarde and Dries Boussatta. Clarence Seedorf also might not make the lineup, but Stam, van Nistelrooy, Kluivert, Overmars, Davids, Hofland, De Boer etc probably will.
We also look a bit tired, with no players at 100% and a few hovering closer to 90%, but if there is any good news to take into this game, it’s that the Netherlands needed penalties to beat Norway in the last round – meaning they’ve played 30 more gruelling minutes than us and had slightly less rest, since their game was on later in the evening.
As the players are warming up, I notice that Davids, Overmars and Makaay look pretty tired. I’d say somewhere roughly between exactly 72 and 76% fitness if I was forced to guess, while plenty of their other players are somewhere in the 80s. It’s good news. They’re tired, we’re free-scoring and rampant. If we can just shackle that damned Ruud van Nistelrooy, we could be in with a chance here.
Due to fitness, I make two rather large decisions. Despite being a bit tired, Cole and Bowyer stay in, because they’re playing amazingly and I need them. However, Dyer and Alan Smith come out and are replaced by Tommy Smith and Owen in the two forward positions.
A tiring opposing backline against the pace and dribbling of two completely fresh forwards feels like a recipe for success. Having said that, I am the man who once thought banana might be good on pizza, so what I’m really saying is that you shouldn’t listen to me about anything.
I’m right. Not about the banana, but that the Neds are weary and struggling, marked out by the inclusion of the orange-injured Seedorf in midfield and Davids on the bench. It’s a good sign. The formidable Dutch war machine is dangerous, but weakened. This is our chance.
The commentary notes that “Holland look to push forward with numbers” and while a tiny bit of wee does come out, it’s not the terminal pant-saturating episode I would normally fall victim to when the Netherlands try to crash through our back doors.
This is because, while they do dance around on the edge of our box for a while via Seedorf and Van Bronkhorst, Ugo Ehiogu will only put up with it for so long and he ends up breaking up two dangerous-looking attacks in the opening stages with crunching tackles and fierce clearances. Robinson also saves from van Nistelrooy in the eighth minute and while I fear we will be under it for a while, it’s okay – they will continue to tire. We just need to continue to survive.
Rio takes the ball from Robbo and finds Sean Davis in midfield, who glides forward unchallenged for what feels like far too long before eventually sliding a ball between out-of-position left-back Kevin Hofland and Jaap Stam… Owen is between them! Owen takes the pass in his stride, and shoots!
GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAAAAAALLLLLLL! Michael Owen crashes us into a ninth minute lead with our first proper attack of the game! Oh, it’s SERIOUSLY on now!
The goal takes the wind out of the Netherlands for a while, but around the half-hour mark, they put their stamp on the game. Ehiogu has to drag van Bronkhorst to the ground to stop a worrying counter-attack from developing and is booked, while right-back Ernest Faber puts a “can’t miss” header wide.
We’re wobbling a bit and when you’re wobbling, there’s one thing you don’t want to happen: Clarence Seedorf to burst into your box (easy now) and lay a tap-in on a plate for Ruud van Nistelrooy, but that’s exactly what happens – and as much as I hate to report it, with 33 minutes gone, it’s 1-1.
Each goalkeeper makes a very steady stop before the break, Waterreus from Bowyer and Robinson from Seedorf, but it’s level at half time, at which point I hook Rio “5” Ferdinand and put Jonny Woodgate on in his place. It’s a good change and within minutes he’s headed away a cross that van Nistelrooy was salivating at the prospect of tucking away, before a corner is whipped in that falls to the feet of Jaap Stam, but Ugo Ehiogu hits a block tackle on him that sends a shockwave through the stadium, and we survive again.
Tommy Smith decides to show what he’s made of as we creep into the 60th minute, flicking himself through and volleying at Waterreus, who tips it wide – then teeing up Michael Owen for a banana shot that flies into the crowd.
As the game is ticking over, we are on top, but the minutes are disappearing fast – I really don’t want extra time and pens. My final change, the leggy Joe Cole off for Steven Gerrard, instantly feels like a mistake but he links up marvellously with clubmate Owen seconds later for a shot that beats Waterreus all ends up, but clangs off the outside of the post to safety.
The board goes up for stoppage time and I’ve still got one sub left; I’ve kept it with extra time and pens in mind. I’m flicking through my notepad, which contains a detailed and thoroughly-researched list of all the best places to have dinner in Lisbon, as we tick through the 90.
Gerrard lays a ball off for Tommy Smith, who races past struggling substitute Edgar Davids and finds Gary Neville wide on the right. Neville looks up, sets himself and just as I’m about to reschedule my booking at Tabernário do Bairro, he whips in a deadly low cross that beats all the defenders… Lee Bowyer is racing into the area! He’s going to make it!
LEE BOWYER POKES IT GOALWARDS!
IT’S THERE! IT’S THERE!! HNNNGGGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL INGLATERRA! In the very last minute of the game… and it’s over! It’s over! We’re in the European Championship final! And I can keep my dinner reservation! Does it get any better than this?!
Ohhh yes, I’ll be lounging in a bath full of sweet vermouth tonight, guaranteed. And who will greet us in the final, you ask?
That’s right, yet another team we’ve already played and already beaten, the reigning World Champions, Italy. Unlike the Netherlands, they have no injuries, as well as no suspensions and virtually no unfit players; only Francesco Totti looks a bit sad at 81%. But come on, it’s Totti. He’s surely going to play.
We’re fairly exhausted all around the squad, but there’s no room for wholesale changes at this stage of the competition. Tommy Smith comes out for Dyer, who’s a better starting player (Tommy is a greater threat from the bench) but Owen stays in after his goal against the Dutch, with Alan Smith on the side.
I also recall Sol Campbell to the starting team after neither Rio nor Woody really did that much to give me confidence that they can stop the Azzurri. Ashley Cole, G Nev and JT are all knackered, but there’s no way they’re coming out of the team for the final. Even lacking fitness, they’ve been there all the way through and performed admirably. To not play them would be criminal.
Same goes for my midfield three of Davis, Bowyer and Joe Cole. They have been exceptional all the way through this run and I need them. And with that, your England team for the European Championship final is set.
Come on lads. Just one more win against a team we’ve already beaten once in this competition and you immortalise yourselves in history forever. And, more importantly, I’ll have actually won something, which makes a change from my usual record in these kinds of challenges.
On, on, you noblest English!
The start of this game is so cagey you could trap a lobster in it and it takes until the 21st minute for either side to take a shot in anger – and it’s Michael Owen who puts a 30-yard volley “horribly wide”. At least he’s trying.
However, two minutes later, Gary bloody Neville is at it again, getting up high on the right and thumping a header straight at Abbiati. Right before the half-time whistle, Neville turns provider, galloping up the flank and crossing for Owen to hit the cleanest of volleys that Abbiati turns around the post.
We tick into the 45th minute with three efforts on target to Italy’s zero; once again, we are performing marvellously against a team who, on paper, look like someone misspelled the names of the Roman gods. Ashley Cole gets away from Zambrotta long enough to whip another cross into the box which Owen meets again, but Abbiati is enormous once more, tipping wide for yet another corner.
It’s a wonderful first-half display from your mighty Lions even though we haven’t pressed home our advantage. Mark Iuliano heads the corner away and the half-time whistle looms as Sean Davis gathers the clearance in central midfield, Antonio Cassano races to close him down… AND LUNGES IN WITH TWO FEET! He completely cleans out Davis! REF! That’s got to be a red!!
Well then. We come in at the break no goals up, but with a man advantage for the whole second period. Uncle Claudio has decided to leave Montella and Vieri up front together and instead play with just a midfield two instead of three, so I tweak my tactics slightly to take advantage: Joe Cole is freed of any marking duties, since there’s nobody left for him to follow around, and told to get forward in support of Owen as much as possible. I almost move him into AMC alongside Dyer, but I don’t want to lose my shape.
As you can imagine, we start the second half tremendously, but keep running into Paolo Maldini. Whenever we come forward with menace in our eyes, the great man simply swats us away with a flick of his left boot, and by 60-odd minutes, he’s single-handedly schooled Cole, Dyer and Owen.
Italy make a couple of changes, Inzaghi coming on for Montella (fabulous) and William Viali replacing Francesco Coco. A few of Italy’s players, most notably Gennaro Gattuso, are playing a little out of position, but I’m not going to let it faze me. It’s like giving Brian Lara a baseball bat – I still have a horrible feeling I’m about to be smashed all over the place.
On 70 minutes, as Owen puts a glaring chance wide, I make my move. Italy are tiring and Sean Davis feels surplus to requirements since Italy only have two in the middle and they’re only ever coming down the flanks anyway. He’s withdrawn and I send Alan Smith on in his place to partner Owen up top. Come on, lads. Let’s be bold. 20 minutes to go against ten men, I want blood.
Abbiati, as you’d expect, is having a blinder in goal for the Azzurri and we just can’t get past him. He smothers twice at the feet of Smith before he can pull the trigger and when Totti is introduced for Giannichedda, I suddenly fear my midfield two might not be enough.
89 minutes. Cole dances around Iuliano and feeds Owen, who hammers yet another shot wide.
90 minutes. Totti dances around Sol Campbell and clips a ball into the box… oh no. Christian Vieri rises, meets the header, and plants it… ON TO THE GLOVES OF ROBINSON! WHAT a save Paul Robinson!! Gary Neville clears, Smith picks it up but can only wallop a shot into the stands and with that… it’s extra time. It was nearly all over there. I am more sweat than man.
I’m still holding on to two subs, a little too closely if you ask Becks. I would have made them sooner, but the game zipped by so quickly that I didn’t get the button pressed in time and, honestly, my players were generally doing so well I didn’t want to interrupt them. But with another half-hour to go (assuming a golden goal doesn’t go in) and with a yellow card to his name, the Sol Campbell’s six isn’t going to do it for me so I replace him with Jonathan Woodgate.
Extra time kicks off and immediately, Paolo Maldini goes down injured. He can’t continue. I glance over at Ranieri, who looks surprisingly pensive and motionless. Oh my goodness, I’ve just realised… they’ve used all their subs! They can’t replace Maldini! Italy are down to nine men for the whole of extra time!
Unfortunately the only chance we muster in the first half of it is yet another Michael Owen effort that he slashes into the stands, and while I’m getting a bit tired of him, he’s probably a bit tired himself, so fair enough. Fifteen minutes stand between me and that nice trophy win bonu- I mean, international glory. Something needs to happen.
Ranieri’s tactics are, suddenly, a catastrophe. Inzaghi is up front by himself, Vieri has dropped into midfield – they’re essentially playing a 4-3-1 and with a single change of my own still to be made, I decide to kill this circus. It’s time to go for the jugular.
Ehiogu is on a six and with no need for three centre halves against one forward, I replace him with Tommy Smith and go all-out attack. Surely even a defence as stout and uncompromising as Italy’s can’t possibly hold out against this?
The second half of extra time starts and my heart returns to my mouth as Zambrotta skips away from Bowyer and Neville but can only find the gloves of Robinson with his eventual cross – thank the good lord.
However, moments later Zambrotta jinks past Neville once more and this time plants his centre onto the forehead of Inzaghi – but Robinson saves again!! My god, Italy are just incredible. Nine men and still putting chances on my target. If we don’t win this, you’d imagine a better manager would take a long, hard look at himself.
Robbo launches the ball forward and Alan Smith nods down for Joe Cole, Cannavaro comes out to challenge… and takes him out! It’s another two-footed tackle! The referee catches up with play, fumbles around in his top pocket…
RED CARD! Italy are down to eight men! Is this the craziest European Championship Final of all time? There are seven minutes to go of this game and Italy only have eight players on the pitch. Eleven against eight. If we get to pens, are they even going to have enough to take them all?
I suddenly realise we only need them to have two more players sent off for the game to be abandoned and hand us the win via forfeit and while that would be my favourite method of victory – a technicality – I guess we should go for the traditional “more goals than them” approach for at least a little while longer.
Dyer whips the free-kick into the box and Alan Smith meets the header! ABBIATI SAVES AGAIN! My god, this man. Why won’t he just go away?
As you can imagine, we’re all over Italy now. The commentary bar is permanently white but we just can’t quite find a way past their banks of desperate defenders… until minute 119. There, Woodgate finds Joe Cole, he crosses, Viali misses his header… it drops for Michael Owen! Eight yards out!
WIDE! WIDE AGAIN! I almost hate Michael Owen at this point. He’s had seven chances fall to him in this game and only put two of them on target. It’s nowhere near good enough and as if to compound my misery, the shrill final whistle tears through my eardrums as our fate is finally sealed. It’s penalties.
The only penalty shootout I’ve faced in my England career was that horrible defeat to Spain at the World Cup and suddenly, Italy’s three lost players don’t mean anything any more.
Sure, Cassano probably would have taken (and scored) one, but I doubt Cannavaro or Maldini would have. If anything, having fewer players might give them the advantage – if it goes to sudden death, they’ll be able to rotate back to Inzaghi and Vieri again while I’m trying to convince John Terry to have a go.
My god. Was this their plan all along?
The Smiths are my first two takers, followed by Bowyer, Cole and, finally, Dyer. I’d rather have Diana Ross take a pen than Michael Owen after that performance but I put him at number six and the rest… well, let’s just hope the rest don’t need to take them.
Tommy steps up… and scores. Great start. Inzaghi does the same. Alan Smith also scores, as does Christian Vieri. OK, 2-2 after the first four – perfect. That’s fine. I’d normally expect to miss the third one, so as Lee Bowyer puts the ball down, I’ve bitten my nails down so far that I’m munching straight into the skin.
Bowyer runs up…
Abbiati doesn’t move! Great pen from Bowyer. What a strike under pressure! 3-2 to England.
Francesco Totti is next for Italy. He looks leggy and exhausted from the rigours of a long and difficult tournament. Totti saunters up to the ball and strikes…
IT’S SAVED! IT’S SAVED! PAUL ROBINSON SAVES FROM FRANCESCO TOTTI! We’re a penalty up in Lisbon!!
Joe Cole, please. Please, Joe. I need you. I love you. You are my prodigal son, my wonder child. Please just score your pen so they don’t need to finish loading me into the back of this ambulance.
Cole steps up “confidently”. How confidently, you ask?
Confidently enough to smash his penalty into the roof of the net and it’s 4-2 England!!
Gattuso strides forward from the Italian scrum. He must score to keep Italy in it. He places the ball down. Whistles ring out from the England section of the Estádio Nacional. Robinson extends his full wingspan to show exactly how much goal the little destroyer has to aim for.
Gattuso runs up… strikes!
OVER! IT’S OVER THE BAR! WE’VE DONE IT! WE’VE DONE IT! ENGLAND ARE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS IN 2004!!
After launching the trophy high into the sky and letting the ticker-tape settle gently into my Lucozade-soaked hair, Mark Palios strides towards me. I extend my hand to receive his congratulations.
With a tear in my eye, I tell Mark he doesn’t know how much his cold, emotionless target setting means to me, especially at a time like this. He responds with a series of beeps and boops, then robotically meanders back into the stands. I’m so proud to work here.
And that’s a wrap! It turns out that, with some major tactical and personnel changes, England could have won Euro 2004 in the most entertaining of fashions. As for me, I return to London and rock back in my leather office chair, a well-earned measure of Laphroaig in hand.
Who knows. Maybe we’ll qualify for the World Cup…