The England Challenge: 2003 Has To Be Better, Right?

2003. I think I can sum up the year with this sentence from Wikipedia:

“Busted, Girls Aloud, Christina Aguilera, The Cheeky Girls and Ronan Keating all had four Top 10 singles”.

If anyone tries to argue music has never been as bad as it is today, that sentence is your response.

I have bigger issues than this, though. It occurs to me that my reliance on 34-year-old Dion Dublin has masked something of a hole in this Golden Generation. While he has a late-career renaissance the only other striker I can really rely on at all is Michael Owen, and he’s permanently injured (it’s a pretty realistic game, to be fair).

Regardless of your views of Wayne Rooney, what’s fairly inarguable is how well timed he was. We rave about that Golden Generation but forget Emile Heskey was in our top 3 most valuable strikers for the best part of 6 years, until he was displaced by Peter Crouch (which in itself says quite a lot). Were it not for Rooney suddenly bursting on the scene we’d have been well and truly f*cked. Or even more f*cked, if you prefer.

Unfortunately, I don’t have Rooney to rely on. Whereas he was a few months past his debut goal against Arsenal in real life by this point, here he’s scored 4 goals in Division One for Everton before joining Middlesbrough for £1.8m. If he ever gets good enough, if won’t be for a while.

But still, this alternate reality offers carrots as well as sticks. I can’t rely on Rooney to make everything upfront, but we have our own unexpected wonderkid making waves. Matthew Piper is still doing a job for Sunderland, so I’m going to take that right winger and see if I can mould him in to the new Michael Owen.

Armenia (home), Euro 2004 Qualifier, March 2003

74. Armenia Tactics.png

We put the game to bed pretty early on, Joe Cole puts on a great performance with 2 goals and we take a win without ever getting out of second gear. Actually, I don’t know if we even have a third gear.

With Owen out of the team I look to Piper to see if he can step up and replace him. He plays very well but doesn’t score. So yes, he can replace him perfectly.

75. Armenia Result.png

Holland (away), Friendly, April 2003

Michael Owen is injured AGAIN, so I stick with Matthew Piper up top to see if he’s got what it takes against quality opposition.

But more than this, I realise that there may be a formation out there that would work for me. It’s the most English of formations. It’s a 4-4-f*cking-2. Why overcomplicate things? We’re English. Let’s play to our strengths.

76. Holland Tactics.png

Apparently 4-4-f*cking-2 is not one of our strengths.

1-0 down at half time without a single shot to show for ourselves, I contemplate whether I’ve committed enough to this formation. Sure, we’re playing 4-4-f*cking-2 in spirit, but offside trap? Short passing? What is this continental nonsense? Half time comes and I tell the players that we’re going England. We’re going direct, we’re counting attacking at pace, and we’re throwing in some proper Gerrard-on-Boateng challenges…

… Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George!

78. Holland Result.png

Oh.

Georgia (away), Euro 2004 Qualifier, May 2003

We were so bad against Holland I can’t single anyone out in particular. There will be no punishments, no-one being forced on to the naughty step after that sh*tshow of a performance. Everyone is equally to blame.

Especially me. I’ve been faffing too much with tactics. I can see that now. 4-4-f*cking-2 is not going to work. Going defensive and overcomplicating things in the hopes of stealing a 0-0 draw is not going to work. We’ve had our midlife crisis, we’ve tried the Porsche and the pierced ear, now it’s time to go back to our wives.

79. Georgia Tactics.png

It looks like our wives don’t want us back.

Joe Cole rounded off a nice team move after we dominated the first 20, but as is always the case they came back in to it and were rewarded when Neville gave away a penalty and Arveladze scored. We tried to change things around to get a hold on the game but failed miserably, and by the end of it were probably lucky to have escaped with a point.

Not good.

80. Georgia Result.png

Romania (home), Euro 2004 Qualifier, August 2003

With 2 games left we’re guaranteed a play off place, but that’s really not good enough. We were handed the easiest of groups and have managed to thoroughly balls it up. Fail to win against Romania and we can’t even claim to have that. It will be a disaster of epic proportions. We don’t have Kieran Dyer, David Beckham or Joe Cole, our three main creative outlets, but we mustn’t let…

81. Owen Injured.png

Oh for f*ck’s sake, Michael.

Our usual formation failed us miserably against Georgia (they who couldn’t beat Armenia), but we can’t gamble again. The 4-4-f*cking-2 experiment was such a sh*tshow I need to stick with what has worked in the past. We’re 50 Cent-ing this motherf*cker. Get rich or die trying. There is no middle ground anymore.

83. Romania Tactics.png

That might be the worst England team of all time.

That said, we manage to batter them for the next 90 minutes. We have 8 shots on target and they have none. It was embarrassing how much better we were. Why, then, we only came away with a 1-0 win I don’t know, but these things happen. I won’t take it personally. A win is all that matters.

84. Romania Result.png

Lithuania (away), Euro 2004 Qualifier, September 2003

So we finish our qualifying campaign away to Lithuania, they of the crazy formation.

We hold top spot, but only because Romania have a game in hand. If we’re to have any chance of going through without suffering the play offs, and it’s unlikely, we need to a proper win.

85. Lithuania Tactics.png

For the first ten minutes we’re a bit all over the shop. Turns out Lithuania have gone even more insane with their formation this time. At home, they went with this:

70. Lithuania Formation

Today they’ve switched to this…

86. Lithuana Formation.png

I might be wrong, but I think that is the formation equivalent of this…

Sherwood

But once everyone calms down we take over. We hit the bar twice before Dunn finally puts us ahead on the half hour, only to be pegged back almost immediately. Piling on pressure but to little avail, we change back to our diamond formation and finally break through thanks to Piper, and we hang on to full time. Not exactly a vintage performance, but it’ll do.

87. Lithuania Result.png

And so it comes to this.

An underwhelming campaign and it’s out of our hands. Romania head to face those bastards Georgia (they who drew with us when we were at our lowest) in their final group game needing a win. If they get it, they’re through as group winners and we’re heading in to the play offs for a second tournament in a row. And let’s face it, they’ll get it against those bastards.

Georgia, I hate you.

88. Georgia Beat Romania.png

Georgia, I love you! Thanks for c*cking up their campaign as well. Romania’s loss means we go through as group winners not because we were good, but because our closest competitors messed it up even worse than we did.

It’s the only way to win, really.

89. Final Group.png

We continue the jouney to Euro 2004 here.

You can take a look at the previous episodes at these links:

Check back in every Monday for the latest reviews. You can also follow me on Twitter here.

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