The final lesson for this generation of young England footballers proved a painful one as they let slip a lead and slid out of next summer's European Under-21 Championship.
With Sven Goran Eriksson watching on, Darren Bent had headed England ahead, both on the night and in the tie, after 54 minutes. However, the impressive Marseille midfielder Franck Ribery swiftly levelled.
With extra time looming Lassana Diarra, of Chelsea, jinked into the area and was felled by a tired tackle from Kieran Richardson. Scott Carson got a hand to Jimmy Briand's penalty but could not keep it out.
The narrow margin reflected the slim difference between the sides. In a fiercely competitive match, which at times boiled over, the French had the greater flair but several young Englishmen shone. In midfield 18-year-old Tom Huddlestone gave a mature performance, Anton Ferdinand impressed in central defence and Scott Carson made one exceptional save in goal. Bent was always a threat but may reflect that a conversion rate, over the two legs, of one goal from six good chances was not good enough.
Eriksson found much to be optimistic about. "It was another fantastic performance by an England side against tough opponents," he said. "They can be proud. There's a lot of exciting talent coming through."
Despite Eriksson's kind words, the England Under-21 coach Peter Taylor could only dwell on the manner of the defeat. "We are disappointed with the penalty," he said. "It was the quickest decision I've seen a referee make. The players thought he dived."
Rene Giraud, the French coach, responded: "The English were not very fair in two games, so in the end the result was justice." Beforehand he had suggested his team would match the English physicality.
Ronald Zubar took him at his word and was booked within six minutes for clattering into Darren Ambrose and Carlton Cole. It was no surprise when the conflict erupted when Michael Dawson pulled back Briand after 27 minutes. As the French clamoured for a red card all 22 players became embroiled in an outbreak of "handbags". In the event Dawson was given yellow, joining Gary O'Neil in the book.
The feuding added spice to an open match. Briand had already missed a good chance when, after eight minutes, Rio Antonio Mavuba gave the ball away to Bent. He broke forward and struck the post, Richardson hitting the rebound straight at Jeremy Gavanon.
England were nearly penalised for their failure to make their early dominance count when Ribery's cross from the left picked out Anthony Le Tallec, but his header was saved by Carson.
When the goals finally arrived it was at a rush. Within four minutes of Bent rising to head Ryan Taylor's deep cross in off the post Ribery had driven in an equaliser from 25 yards. He, of all the players involved, looks most likely to emulate Michel Platini, whose stellar career began at Nancy (as, indeed, did the coaching careers of Arsene Wenger and Alain Perrin). Always a threat with his pace and skill he may miss the finals through being called up for World Cup duty.
England, pushing, for the win, threw on Dean Ashton to form a three-man forward line - but he put his opportunity wide. The French, with a man advantage in midfield, took contol. Though an outstanding block by Ferdinand, and a smart save by Carson, kept them at bay there was no respite when Richardson conceded the penalty.
England Under-21 (4-4-2): Carson (Liverpool); Taylor (Wigan), Ferdinand (West Ham), Dawson (Tottenham); Onuoha
(Manchester City); Ambrose (Charlton), Huddlestone (Wolves), O'Neil (Portsmouth) Richardson (Manchester United); Cole (Chelsea), Bent (Charlton). Substitutes used: Ashton (Norwich, for Ambrose, 66); Jerome (Cardiff, for Cole, 90); Whittingham (Derby, for Onuoha, 80).
France Under-21 (4-4-2): Gavanon (Clermont); Sagna (Auxerre), Zubar (Caen), Badiane (Paris SG), Berthod (Lyon); Faubert (Bordeaux), Mavuba (Bordeaux), Didot (Rennes), Ribery (Marseilles); Le Tallec (Sunderland), Briand (Stade Rennes). Substitutes used: Diarra (Chelsea, for Didot, 57); Fauvergue (Lille, for Le Tallec, 87).
Referee: M Trefeloni (Italy).
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