Almost twenty years ago England went to Poland knowing that a draw would qualify them for Italia 90. A backs-to-the wall performance and the magnificence of Peter Shilton ensured they had their point and the team then went onto reach the semi-finals of the tournament that arguably saved English football from itself and ultimately elevated it to today’s dizzy heights.
Were it not for the crossbar however that Poland hit in the last minute with the superlative Shilton well beaten, England would have lost that night and not have qualified for Italia 90. There would have been no glorious semi-final defeat, no tears from Gazza and the EPL might never have been born. Yet lady luck was smiling on England that night and here we are some 20 years on with England once again on the brink of the finals of the World Cup. Like Bobby Robson’s team, England remain unbeaten throughout their qualifying campaign but there is unlikely to be a repeat of that night in Chorzow where England had to get a result as their campaign for South Africa draws to a close.
Should England fail on Wednesday they have a second and a third stab at qualification against the Ukraine and Belarus respectively in October although in all likelihood their passage to South Africa next summer will be sealed with those two games to spare.
There’s something about a do-or-die game however that somehow makes it all seem worthwhile. All those weekends where the EPL comes to a grinding halt and all eyes are fixed firmly on the England camp seem to frustrate fans and managers alike but when it all comes down to one night, it serves up a starter that wets our appetite for the main course of the Finals themselves next summer.
In years’ gone by, as well as the nail-biter in Poland, England supporters have endured the catastrophe in Rotterdam in 1993, the miracle of Rome in 1997, David Beckhams finest hour in 2001 although last time around in 2005 it was something of a damp squib as Sven’s men actually qualified for Germany on the back of a Dutch victory over the Czech Republic.
Of course the misery of failing to qualify for Euro 2008 is still relatively fresh in people’s minds and whilst you could argue that England have come on in leaps and bounds since that horror show in 2007 – ironically also against Wednesday’s opponents Croatia – it could be argued that international football is steadily falling down the interest radar. Of course everyone loves the World Up but the whole qualification process? It just seems inconvenient particularly to fans of the Bloated Four although it must be said but when it is their teams that are pretty much decimated by international call ups you can maybe see their point.
There was a time when England games seemed to really matter and they would capture the imagination of the English public in as much as they seemed to unite the football world but now they seem nothing more than a little sideshow than needs to be gotten out of the way before everyone can back to the real deal of the EPL.
With two huge games coming up on September 12th (Man City v Arsenal; Spurs v Man Utd) when the league resumes it is sometimes hard to get too excited about the international scene but come next summer no doubt even England’s biggest critics will be on the bandwagon although it is fair to say that the EPL has become the be all and end all of football in England and sadly that seems to include international football as well.
As far as Capello is concerned, well all he has done really is take the same group of players and taught them how to win again in a not too dissimilar way that one of his predecessors Sven Goran Erickson had England playing. It’s not pretty but it is effective – albeit against mediocre opposition it must be said. Indeed, perhaps one of the biggest reasons for England’s recent winning streak is not necessarily the new manager but the standard of opposition in their group. You can only beat what’s in front of you and England has obviously done that but without really making anyone sit up and take notice. There’s still questions about the left side of midfield, there’s still doubts about Gerrard and Lampard in the same team and whilst those issues have been part and parcel of the England set up for years it seems there’s now doubts about just who is the first choice goalkeeper and just who should partner Rooney up front if there is to be a partner for him at all.
The warm up game against Slovania on Saturday will merely be a taster for the big event on Wednesday with Capello hoping above all to avoid any injuries to his squad so he may play his first team. Looking at the team that faced Poland in 1989 what Capello wouldn’t give for the likes of Shilton, Bryan Robson and Gary Lineker to be lining up for him. Indeed it makes the mouth water doesn’t it? Gerrard and Robson together in the middle of the park? Rooney and Lineker up front? Maybe England would even progress beyond the Quarter Final stage and maybe even…nah, it wouldn’t be the same without a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss would it?
Peter Shilton [Derby County]
Gary Stevens [Glasgow Rangers]
Stuart Pearce [Nottingham Forest]
Desmond Walker [Nottingham Forest]
Terence Butcher [Glasgow Rangers]
David Rocastle [Arsenal]
Bryan Robson [Manchester United]
Stephen McMahon [Liverpool]
Christopher Waddle [Marseille]
Peter Beardsley [Liverpool]
Gary Lineker [Tottenham Hotspur]