“Looking back, it was an exciting time in my career, an important moment in Kevin’s career and something that you remember with a certain amount of pride, but also a certain amount of disappointment.”
Derek Fazackerley is reflecting on Euro 2000, where he worked as assistant to England manager Kevin Keegan as the team crashed out at the group stages against Romania, Portugal and Germany.
Keegan is his own worst critic. An emotional, passionate football custodian who was relatable to the common football fan. He seemed an ideal candidate to oversee a tricky moment in the history of the England national team. Perhaps it didn’t work out the way he’d hoped, but nobody points the finger at Keegan for that more than the man himself.
Turbulent is a good way to describe his introduction to life in the role. On the pitch, the team had drawn and lost their opening two games in qualifying for the tournament, while off it, in early 1999, Glenn Hoddle was sacked for making inappropriate comments in an interview. Keegan arrived, brought Fazackerley and Arthur Cox, who he’d worked with at Newcastle United, with him and inspired them to qualification via a playoff against Scotland, despite losing the second leg at Wembley.
“They hadn’t got off to a good start and when we took over, they were bottom of the group,” Fazackerley continues. “We beat Poland at home and drew away and then the play-off was a massive occasion, being against Scotland. It was a fantastic result and performance, winning 2-0 at Hampden Park, but we let ourselves down a bit by getting beaten 1-0 at Wembley. It was a good achievement, but unfortunately we didn’t go as far as we’d have liked during the tournament.
There was something of a transitional feel about the squad at Euro 2000; four years earlier, Terry Venables’ side were roared on by a home crowd engulfed in the excitement of hosting a major tournament to reach the semi finals at Euro ’96.
Four years later, Sven-Goran Eriksson, who would ultimately replace Keegan, oversaw Euro 2004 at the birth of what became known as the Golden Generation. It was Keegan’s job to galvanise the team that was in the midst of searching for an identity. Paul Gascoigne was no longer on the scene and Alan Shearer would retire that summer, while the likes of Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard were yet to fully emerge.
“The process of picking the squad goes on over a number of months,” Fazackerley says. “You’re watching the Premier League games towards the end of the season and you’ve probably already experienced working with the majority of players through the qualifiers.
“If you look forward to today, Gareth Southgate will probably find it more difficult than Kevin did because of the amount of young players that are around now who are performing well for England. If you look back to 2000, there were more experienced players who had been around the set up for a long time. There were some younger players, like Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen, but not as many as there are now putting pressure on the senior players.”
Kevin Phillips, who was coming in off the back of a remarkable season with Sunderland and his first in the Premier League, was among those selected. His 30 goals in 1999/2000 won him the European Golden Boot and he admits he looks back on that summer with frustration, having not played at all.
“It was disappointing, with the quality we had, to get knocked out in the group stages,” Phillips says. “On a personal note, it was extremely disappointing, after the season I’d had with the Golden Boot, not getting a minute despite the way we performed. It was ‘typical England’ at that time.
“I wasn’t daft enough to think I’d start in front of Shearer and Owen and people like that, purely because of the clubs they were playing at. The big European games suited them. I could understand if we were playing well and winning every game, but to not get a minute’s action when the press were calling for me to be used was a bitter pill to swallow when we were flying home on that early plane.
“If I scored those goals for a Man Utd, an Arsenal or a Liverpool, I’m sure I would have been starting those games at Euro 2000. But when I think about it, scoring them for Sunderland is more of an achievement than it is playing for a United because I got fewer chances. Because it was Sunderland, nobody ever talks about it. If someone did that now, we’d be talking about them non-stop.”
There were opportunities for Phillips to progress his career elsewhere, but he remained loyal to the Black Cats and, as a result, cemented legendary status on Wearside.
“I’d be lying if I said my agent wasn’t constantly ringing me about this or that. I know that Arsenal and Tottenham were interested, and it was down to myself,” says the forward.
“If I wanted to push for a move, I could have, but I was happy at Sunderland. They gave me a new contract, the best they’ve ever given in the history of the club and I was settled. Because we’d just finished seventh I thought Sunderland were going places so I said, ‘Why would I want to move?’
“I didn’t go in to that season with a goal of getting into the England squad. I just wanted to prove to people I could score goals at that level. Then you’re attention switches when people start talking about it. When I got the call from Kevin, it was fantastic; I just wanted to get out there.
“Wherever we travelled as a squad, everything came to a standstill, roads were shut and there were police escorts. The hotel was on the border between Belgium and Holland; there was security everywhere, barbed fences; you are looked after like royalty. We soon realised how big it was; a very surreal experience.”
Defeat to Portugal in the opening group game was a catastrophic start. England led 2-0 thanks to goals from Paul Scholes and Steve McManaman, before Luis Figo and Joao Pinto levelled before half time. Nuno Gomes’s penalty decided the outcome just shy of the hour mark.
Shearer scored the only goal against Germany, which meant England had their fate in their own hands in the final match with Romania, but they lost another five-goal thriller. Keegan, who was known for his all-out attacking intent at Newcastle, was criticised in the media for his lack of tactical awareness. Both Fazackerley and Phillips insist that was unfair.
“Tony Adams got injured against Portugal and didn’t play any further part; David Seaman got injured in the warm up against Romania,” Fazackerley recalls. “There were things that went against us; I know Dennis Wise had problems with blisters. Things happen in tournaments that are probably better catered for now, possibly because of the age of the squad. When you are playing every four days, you need a bit of luck in that respect.
“People are always looking for a reason [to explain defeats] and [poor tactics] is an easy jibe to make. To say he was naïve, what do people expect? When you’re 2-0 up in the first game, are the tactics from the sidelines important? Should the players not be able to look after it themselves? Against Romania, we are two apiece and qualifying and then give a penalty away. Is that tactics? I’m not so sure it is.
“We won against a pretty competent German side and you don’t get lauded as a tactical genius then. So why, if you lose 3-2 against Portugal, are you tactically naïve? It is poor, but journalists have to sell newspapers so they need to come up with something for people to buy into.”
“Generally, when you have quality players, it shouldn’t really be about tactics,” Phillips picks up. “You should be able to put 11 internationals out on the pitch with some information from the manager. Back then, it wasn’t complicated; 4-4-2 with Shearer and Owen up top and that sort of thing was really common. It’s probably different now because there’s more scrutiny on that side of things today.
“Kevin was great on the training pitch and a great motivator. The dressing room was quite cliquey, there were a lot of players from Manchester United and Liverpool, a few from Arsenal. It was very much like ‘you sit with them, you sit with them’. I spent a lot of my time with Richard Wright, the Ipswich goalkeeper, because at the time we were the two who perhaps weren’t expected to make the squad. Kevin was really good at integrating and getting us to mix but if you speak to anyone from that era, they’ll tell you there were cliques. Maybe that is another reason it didn’t quite click.”
While England weren’t perhaps at their strongest, making such an early exit was not expected.
“There was just utter disbelief in the dressing room,” Phillips says. “Romania were a good side, but this was England, we shouldn’t have lost to them. Portugal had quality and we obviously knew all about Germany. But it was quiet, there was some anger from senior players venting their frustrations. The overarching feeling was that we’d let the nation and ourselves down – it doesn’t really get any lower than that as an England player. But as much as I was disappointed, part of me was thinking: ‘Well, I didn’t even get an opportunity to put it right.’ It was mixed sadness.”
By October, Keegan’s time was up. For the second time in his managerial career, after his dramatic exit from Newcastle in January 1997, he resigned from his post. Qualification for the 2002 World Cup began with Germany, who were at Wembley for its final match before its demolition and rebuild, looking to exact their revenge. In the pouring rain, Dietmar Hamann’s free-kick brought down the curtain on the first half of the stadium’s great history, and a difficult chapter in England’s too.
Keegan, who writes in his autobiography My Life in Football about initially considering walking away after the Euros, made the decision at the final whistle and trudged into the dressing room to tell the players, having not discussed it with Fazackerley or Cox.
“The reaction from the players said it all about Kevin,” Phillips asserts. “We wanted him to stay and were trying to persuade him as a group. We had to go to Finland on the Tuesday night for the second game, which Howard Wilkinson took, and we were just gutted that Kevin left. He wore his heart on his sleeve, he was an emotional guy and it takes a big person to do what he did.
“He cared about the players; Alan Shearer and Tony Adams tried to tell him to stay and none of that was forced. It was a long walk from the old Wembley dugouts and the dressing room, and the thinking time made his mind up. It was a complete shock and everyone was completely silent for about a minute when he told us.”
“I didn’t know anything prior to him coming into the dressing room,” Fazackerley says. “The weight of feeling after the game and the reaction from the fans meant it was always going to be a difficult time for Kevin. He was an emotional man and on a night like that it was always a possibility, but maybe if he’d taken a couple of days to reflect, it’d have been different. In hindsight, it wasn’t that much of a surprise.
“Kevin did what he thought was right at the time, it was a difficult night for everybody. He carried the brunt of the disappointment, and there was a reaction, but there were actually one or two people applauding, too. It wasn’t just about Kevin; he had to do what is right for his family, and some of the newspapers were quite vitriolic about the way they were reporting things.”
Euro 2000 will go down as one of the darker moments in England folklore, but Keegan’s manner and the strength of character he showed as manager deserves huge respect. For Fazackerley, the ride will always be looked on positively.
“When Kevin came into Newcastle [in 1992] and I was working with the reserves, if someone said that almost 10 years later I’d be sat on the touchline at Wembley and at international tournaments, I’d have said: ‘You must be daft!’ For somebody like me, it was a absolutely fantastic.”