The England Challenge: Build Up To The Big One

With England so embarrassingly dropping out of a major tournament, I think it’s time I proved how easy it is to win one of those things.

2002. What a year. Michael Jackson dangled his son over the balcony of a hotel, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones came out, and Girls Aloud won Pop Stars: The Rivals. Oh, wait. That sounds awful.

With qualification in the bag (the previous episode is here) we start our preparations for the World Cup with two friendlies arranged by the FA. We head abroad to take on Croatia and… Germany? Again?

Away to Croatia, Friendly March 2002

We’re just three months from the tournament itself and quite a few players are already nailed on. Seaman, Rio, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole and Mickey Owen are all guaranteed starters. They could lose a leg between now and June and still start, so I leave them out to get a look at some alternatives.

Beckham and Gerrard are guaranteed too, but I want the option to try them in different roles so they stay in. BIG DION stays in too, because resting players has limits.

With a truckload of players going out, we bring a bunch in too, including future England legends Carl Cort, David Dunn and Michael Bridges.

We stick with the diamond that is kind-of-but-not-really working for us, with attacking mentality, short passing and De Jong-on-Alonso tackling.

I’m feeling good about this one.

28. Croatia Tactics.png

Croatia go one up almost straight away and proceed to batter us for half an hour, the only bright light being BIG DION’S link up play. Then again, you might say I’m biased.

However, with a few minutes until half time Kevin Phillips scores a lovely goal and takes himself one step closer to the 11 hour flight to Seoul. 9 half time substitutions and a change to a standard 442 with wingers gives 6 players a debut. Gerrard scores with 20 minutes to go, only to concede an injury time equaliser. That’s fine, we barely deserved a draw anyway.

29. Croatic Result.png

So what did we learn? Wes Brown is a solid, ginger-haired backup, Kevin Phillips is a goal threat, and we can play really quite terribly and still come away with a draw.

In other words, not a lot.

Away to Germany (again), Friendly, May 2002

27. Press 1.png

I can’t say I blame them. I back the players, but the 2-2 draw with Croatia was flattering. I throw out a lot of the deadwood from that squad and lean towards what I think might end up being the squad for the tournament (minus the injured Becks). If playing against Germany just five months and five games since we last faced them is going to have any value, it’s to measure our new team against our old one.

So the squad is Wright, Seaman, James, Woodgate, Rio, Campbell, Brown, both Nevilles, Ashley Cole, Gray, Hargreaves, Gerrard, Butt, Lampard, Murphy, Scholes, Joe Cole, Dyer, Dunn, Phillips, Owen, Dublin, Andy Cole and Carl Cort.

Yeah, that’s right, Carl Cort stays in. Why? He’s scored as many goals as Alan Shearer for Newcastle this year, despite playing half the games. I don’t want to say he’s the next Alan Shearer, but HOLY SH*T YOU GUYS CARL CORT IS THE NEW ALAN SHEARER.

30. Germany Tactics.png

We won 2-0! Dyer continues to look like the New Zinedane Zidane, whilst the New Alan Shearer was… okay, I guess? The real highlight was Nicky Butt, although Paul Scholes’ consistently average performances are a worry. Andy Cole finally got a run out and spent most of his 20 minutes on the pitch in his natural habitat- offside.

31. Germany Result.png

But still, we beat Germany 2-0! And it was totally deserved! We’re going to win the World Cup!

33. Press 2.png

What, again?

World Cup 2002 Squad Announcement, June 2002

And so we reach the hardest point in an England manager’s career. The point where you officially put the hopes of a nation on the shoulders of 23 ill-equipped man-children.

Goalkeepers

David Seaman is the easy first choice, so Richard Wright and David James are fine as backup. No-one cares about goalkeepers.

Defenders

Ferdinand, Campbell, Ashley Cole and the two Nevilles are guaranteed. Phil can cover left and right back, so there’s no room for a specialist left sided backup in Michael Gray. He’s a gonna. Wes Brown and Jono Woodgate will benefit from the experience as cover for Rio and Sol. This is easy.

Midfielders

Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Joe Cole, Dyer and Hargreaves have been my trusted lieutenants all along so they make it. Nicky Butt was outstanding against Germany, so he makes it in too. As does right winger Matthew Piper, who I’ve never picked before and who plays in a position that doesn’t exist in my tactics. But hey, why let something silly like logic get in the way of doing what you want?

Frank Lampard, however, doesn’t make it. Despite making every squad so far he’s shown the square root of bugger all, so he’s shown the door. I always hate it when the England manager picks based on reputation (Wayne Rooney, I’m looking at your balding head), and yet here I am picking Lampard based on the reputation he has fourteen years later in an alternate universe.

David Dunn sneaks in ahead of Danny Murphy because it’s just a game and I can’t be bothered to spend more than 1.5 seconds thinking about who is the better 8th choice central midfielder.

Strikers

Michael Owen and Kevin Phillips are the only ones who actually look like they want to score for me, so they’re in. Carl Cort too, partially because he’s in fine form, and partially because you can’t give someone the nickname “The New Alan Shearer” and not take him with you.

Andy Cole is dropped as my tactics revolve around having players stay in onside positions.

The real problem comes with the final slot. I’ve been putting all hopes on Big Dion, but he frankly hasn’t been doing it. He’s scored 3 goals for the relegated Aston Villa this season, and I think he’s mostly been used as a centre back.

Meanwhile, Emile Heskey has had a fine season for Liverpool, finishing as the highest scoring English player in the league. If there was a single logical reason to take Big Dion then I would, but I can’t see one.

But at the end of the day, isn’t that what faith is all about? I started the game suspecting the Championship Manager Gods were sending me a message with Big Dion, and he’s been nothing but a disappointment so far. Evidence and science says I should take him out, but maybe it’s just my will being tested. I have to keep the faith. It’s like when Jesus spent forty days in the oh God I’m comparing Dion Dublin to Jesus now I should go to bed.

Either way, Big Dion stays in, but with one, strict criteria – win us the World Cup. Anything short of that, and it’s his meaty neck that’s on the line.

For the next episode, when we take on the Group Stages, click here

You can catch previous episodes on the following links:

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