The England Challenge: Thiiiiings Can Only Get Betterrrr

We enter the new year with our place at Euro 2004 booked. We made quite a hash of it but thanks to the balls up from Romania we made it through by default, the two sweetest words in the English language.

But what of 2004? What was it like? Well, take a look at the list of 10 best selling songs of the year in the UK and make up your own mind:

  1. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” By Band Aid 20
  2. “F*ck It (I Don’t Want You Back)” by Eamon
  3. “Cha Cha Slide” by DJ Casper
  4. “Call On Me” by Eric Prydz
  5. “Yeah” by Usher feat Ludacris (read this, y’all)
  6. “All This Time” by Michelle McManus
  7. “Left Outside Alone” by Anastacia
  8. “Mysterious Girl” by Peter Andre
  9. “Toxic” by Britney Spears
  10. “F*ck You Right Back” by Frankee

So yeah, not the best year.

It’s not been a great year for England, either (although a little better than 2016 turned out to be). Our preparations for the European Championships have been hampered by a lack of games. Our fixtures fell so we didn’t play in the last round of group games, and then our friendly against Spain in November was cancelled when Spain had to enter the play offs, and the FA didn’t organise another one.

It’s nice to know that the inadequacies in English football aren’t completely at my door, at least.

Despite this, I’ve realised that two of my three usual goalkeepers are now plying their trade in Division 1, tending goal against the likes of Rod Wallace and Marcus Stewart. That won’t do.

It would be too cruel to drop David James altogether given he was the first choice throughout the whole awful qualifying campaign, but he can no longer be our definitive number one. With a friendly against Holland coming up, we give an opportunity to Paul Robinson, who has finally dislodged the 76-year-old Nigel Martyn. We also call up Stuart Taylor, who was the only goalkeeper left when David Seaman retired last summer and is therefore Arsenal’s number one. Yeah…

Holland (away), Friendly, March 2004

Once more we play The Netherlands, as we can only play the same three teams on repeat apparently. It’s been a year since my tactical balls-up led to the single worst performance I’ve ever seen in the history of Championship Manager or Football Manager. Possibly in football in general. I couldn’t say.

Alongside the keepers we make a few other changes. Lewis Buxton has been outstanding for Liverpool and therefore gets a shot as the left sided centre back, Parker, Dunn and Gerrard come in to the midfield, and Dyer drops out through injury because we can’t have nice things.

91. Holland Tactics.png

Holland batter us, but with our first shot Owen scores after 13 minutes. After 34 minutes they get the goal they deserve when Robinson can only save so many shots in a 3 second window and Stam bundles it in. At this point we have less than 35% success rate for tackles AND headers.

Things go from bad to worse after the break. We’ve been riding our luck with our Gascoigne-on-Charles tackling for a while…

… but this runs out when Parker two footed lunges the lovely Clarence Seedorf and gets sent off. From then on we don’t have another shot in the whole game and lose 3-1. They hardly break a sweat.

Between that and realising “Babycakes” by 3 Of A Kind was the twelfth highest selling song of the year, it’s a pretty depressing way to start 2004 to be honest.

92. Holland Result.png

Portugal (away), Friendly, May 2004

Jon Harley’s good form for Chelsea sees him take the left back slot ahead of Michael Gray to see if he can fill that important role of “player who makes every squad but never plays”. All he has to do is play well against *checks Portugal right winger* Luis Figo. Oh.

93. Portugal Tactics.png

In hindsight, it may have been slightly unfair to give Harley his debut against possibly the best player in the world at this point. Probably even more so alongside a centre back and a goalkeeper with 2 caps combined.

Despite Harley being torn a new you-know-what, this game is actually pretty even. Neither team really gains an advantage until Owen is brought down in the box and he tucks away the penalty. God I hope he stays fit for the Euros.

The joy doesn’t last for long, though. Straight after half time Bino scores for Portugal, and just a few moments later Kieran Dyer head-butts him. Probably trying to get a closer look to work out who the f*ck Bino is, I imagine.

It’s a straight red for Dyer, our second in two games, and I start to get a feeling that this challenge might end up going on for a very, very long time.

We hang on to the 1-1, but yeah… it’s not the best preparation for a tournament I’ve ever seen.

94. Portugal Result.png

On that high note I give you the squad for Euro 2004:

Goalkeepers

Paul Robinson has made the most appearances of any English goalkeeper this season for his club side, so he’s in. Stuart Taylor has made the second most, so he is too. I’m that easy to please.

David James can stay in, despite not having played in six months. For Wigan. In Division One.

Defence

Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Campbell, Ferdinand and Woodgate are also easy picks. Wes Brown’s hair is mesmerising, so I take him too.

Lewis Buxton grabbed the opportunity against Portugal with both hands AND was the best player for title-winning Liverpool this year (yeah, Liverpool won the league), so I kind of have to take him.

Jon Harley is out. It was unfair to give him his big chance against Figo, but hey, he failed. Rules are rules.

Gareth Barry (who is still a defender on this game) makes it in, partially for his good form for Sunderland, partially because he’s useful to have around. Like blu-tac.

Midfield

Beckham is in, obviously. Hargreaves is the right-footed Gareth Barry, so his usefulness finds him a place. Parker’s decent showing against Portugal makes up for his red against Holland.

Nicky Butt and David Dunn also get the call up. Not only have they always done right by me, they have the potential for a spin-off buddy cop show called “Dunn In The Butt”. I’ll keep them around while I work on a pilot.

Joe Cole has gone cold on me since his big money move to Feyenoord (?), but Kieran Dyer is injured so I don’t have a choice. Maybe he’ll “Big Dion it” and make it count when it matters.

For the last midfield slot I have to get real. If I want to actually finish this challenge in the next decade I can’t care about things like “I felt England should have used him better in real life” when he’s not doing it in the game. I love Scholes as a player, but he’s been absolute sh*te for me on this game and has only started 8 games in 2 years for Man Utd. That’s fewer than Bojan Djordic. He’s out. Matthew Piper is in.

Strikers

Owen makes it in, obviously. So does Carlton Cole, who hasn’t really done it for me but he’s the least worst option of about 8 bang average strikers.

But who else? Jermain Defoe hasn’t played in the Premiership for years. Wayne Rooney has scored 4 times in almost 100 career appearances so far, the majority of them in Division One. Carl Cort shockingly turned out not to be the New Alan Shearer as I predicted. The only option left, somehow, is Michael Bridges.

I’ve been ignoring him so far for squads because, you know, he’s Michael Bridges, but he’s the top English scorer this year and his stats are pretty awesome. He’ll do.

And of course, I take Big Dion. I’ve been trying other things against Holland and Portugal but I think his leadership has been missed. We’re in a hopelessly worse position than we were in for the World Cup (which I didn’t think was possible) so maybe he’ll pull it out again. But then that’s it. He’s 35 now and it’s getting silly. There’s only so much one bald-headed, veteran, donkey striker can do to drag an entire nation through on his own.

To find out what happens in the Euro 2004 group stages click here.

To go back to previous episodes you can use these links:

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