Four years ago England began their World Cup qualifying campaign with a shocker of a performance and within an hour of the final whistle, the manager had resigned. There was about as much chance of Sven Goran Eriksson following Kevin Keegan's example here on Saturday night as there was of Mozart climbing from his nearby grave to compose a tribute to his nation's football heroes, but more displays like this and the England coach's days are surely numbered.
For the third time in four competitive matches, England failed to win a game in which they had taken the lead. At least when France and Portugal came from behind to win at Euro 2004, England knew they had been beaten by two of the continent's better teams. Here, they squandered a position of supremacy in the Ernst Happel Stadium against a side which in the first half had justified every one of the 83 places which separates them from England in Fifa's rankings. Austria are ranked 90th, sandwiched between Guinea and Turkmenistan.
As the Rotherham fans behind the goal - who on a flag count appeared to outnumber every other English club - watched the home team in red and white struggle to make any mark on the first 45 minutes, they might have imagined they were back at Millmoor watching the Coca-Cola Championship's bottom team. Austria had played without guile, imagination or belief, as if determined to justify their own prediction that they were playing for second place in the group.
England led at the interval thanks to a comical gift of a goal, Austria conceding a free-kick 12 yards from their line after Martin Stranzl, mistakenly thinking he had heard the referee's whistle, passed back to Alex Manninger, his goalkeeper. The subsequent defending was just as wretched as the unmarked Frank Lampard steered David Beckham's clever pass into an empty net.
If England's first-half performance had been less than dynamic, it appeared at least to be adequate. They had created three more clear scoring chances for Owen, Manninger should have been sent off for handling the ball outside the penalty area, and Ledley King and John Terry were in command at the back.
Yet within 10 minutes of the restart, mistakes had started to litter an England performance which did not improve even after Steven Gerrard had increased the lead against the run of play with a gloriously curled shot from outside the box after 64 minutes.
Lampard's senseless push on Gernot Sick five yards outside his own penalty area led to the first Austrian goal, but the Chelsea man was far from alone in making errors of judgement. Beckham led by bad example, misplacing passes, reacting with petulance both to his own mistakes and to Austrian aggression, and getting himself booked for a nasty foul on Dietmar Kühbauer in a position of no danger 10 yards inside the opposition half.
Crucially, David James went walkabout. The England goalkeeper had already got away with one howler, Terry saving on the line after Mario Haas had easily beaten the outrushing James to a through ball, before Andreas Ivanschitz's deflected low shot from 25 yards crept under his body for the Austrian equaliser. Welcome back, Calamity James.
Yet nobody in the England camp appears to be ready to take on responsibility for the carelessness and complacency that is costing them dear and has turned Wednesday's game against Poland in Katowice into one they cannot afford to lose.
Eriksson said he thought England had done well enough to win, even after the second-half mayhem. He immediately exonerated James ("mentally he's strong and I'm quite sure he will play on Wednesday") and reiterated his confidence in his goalkeeper yesterday. Beckham "played well" and the coach refused to assign blame for errors. "We could sit here and talk about individual and collective mistakes that have been made over the past three-and-a-half years, but to be that negative is not in my character," he said.
James accepted he had been at fault for Ivanschitz's equaliser, but said he had not apologised to his colleagues. "It's a team game," he said. "When you do good things, you take the praise. When things go badly, you share the grief." Meanwhile, Gary Neville rounded on a journalist for questioning Eriksson's credentials and insisted that "it's a question of cutting out mistakes rather than making great changes in tactics".
So when do mistakes become the team's - and above all the manager's - problem? This was not a case of isolated or out-of-character errors costing England dear. Lampard's push which led to the first goal was reminiscent of Emile Heskey's foul which set up Zinedine Zidane's equaliser for France at Euro 2004 and the collective loss of concentration late in matches has almost become a habit.
Owen looked out of touch and Alan Smith, while working tirelessly, came too deep in search of the ball, which he gave away too often. The Manchester United striker rarely linked well with Owen and, presented with his one clear sight at goal early in the second half, he shot tamely into Manninger's hands.
Lampard was anonymous and Gerrard sank into the collective mire after a bright first half and a delightful goal. Wayne Bridge, playing out of position, filled in competently on the left, though the overlapping Ashley Cole offered more penetration. Indeed, the two young left backs posed more of a threat than their counterparts on the right, Beckham and Neville, the most capped players in the squad. While Neville made inroads in the first half and delivered some dangerous crosses, Beckham was cutting inside and disappearing up culs-de-sac.
Eriksson was keen to give Austria some credit and Hans Krankl's team certainly showed great spirit in the last 20 minutes. Ivanschitz, at 20 the youngest captain in his country's history and already saddled with the burden of being labelled "Austria's Beckham", was the most influential player on the pitch by the end.
Yet this was still Austria, a team with no big-name players, little big-match experience and a mediocre recent track record. They have failed in 10 successive attempts to qualify for the European Championship finals and have played in the World Cup finals only twice since 1982.
It is early days in the World Cup qualifying campaign and England are not alone in having made a poor start, France having been held at home by Israel and Greece having lost to Albania. Eriksson, moreover, having reached the 2002 finals after inheriting a team which had taken just one point from their first two games, knows that the group is still there to be won.
Four years ago, however, it took a new manager to bring some order to a team which had lost their sense of direction. We should know within the next six weeks - after Katowice on Wednesday, England next month go to Old Trafford to play Wales and to Baku to play Azerbaijan - whether the FA's revolving door will have to start spinning again.
Austria: (4-4-2) Manninger (Siena); Standfest (Graz AK), Stranzl (VfB Stuttgart), Hiden (Rapid Vienna), Pogatetz (Graz AK); Sick (Graz AK), Kühbauer (SV Mattersburg), Aufhauser (Graz AK) (Kiesenebner, Austria Magna, 73), Ivanschitz (Rapid Vienna); Glieder (SV Pasching) (Kollmann, Graz AK, 67), Haas (Sturm Graz) (Hieblinger, Kelag Kärnten, 88). Substitutes not used Mandl (FC Basel, gk), Dospel (Austria Magna), Katzer (Rapid Vienna), Linz (Nice).
England: (4-4-2) James (Manchester City); G Neville (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), King (Tottenham Hotspur), A Cole (Arsenal); Beckham (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), Gerrard (Liverpool) (Carragher, Liverpool, 81), Bridge (Chelsea) (J Cole, Chelsea, 83); Owen (Real Madrid), Smith (Manchester United) (Defoe, Tottenham Hotspur, 75). Substitutes not used: Robinson (Tottenham Hotspur), Dyer (Newcastle), Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Vassell (Aston Villa).
Bookings: Austria Pogatetz. England Beckham.
Referee: M Lubos (Slovakia).
Man of the match: Ivanschitz.Reuse content