A mess. A mess of mud and mistakes and comebacks and despair and hope but ultimately, heartbreakingly, a night of failure. England have failed to reach the finals of Euro 2008 next summer. Steve McClaren will be sacked – probably today. And yet that only begins to tell the story of a remarkable night.
The night the so-called golden generation delivered their most monumental failure, a diabolical performance served up on a churned Wembley pitch that left England on the outside of a major international tournament for the first time in 14 years. There was intense drama and a two-goal comeback but, when the crowd rubbed their eyes and reflected on the ruins of McClaren's team, they knew what they had seen. A side so incoherent and half-cocked that they could not take the chances that have been given them time and time again.
Two goals down within 14 minutes, including a first conceded via an abysmal error by the rookie Scott Carson, England came back through Frank Lampard's penalty and an exquisite finish by Peter Crouch from a cross by the substitute David Beckham. With 25 minutes to go they were, albeit chaotically, on their way to Euro 2008. Then Mladen Petric scored a winner that sent Russia, who beat Andorra, through in their place.
Come the end of the match we were left with a tragic tableau. McClaren had disappeared down the tunnel to do whatever it is doomed managers do. On the pitch his players did not know whether to clap or cry, as they stood around listless and lost. Lampard was booed; Beckham (just the 99 caps) was applauded. And then they trudged off in a stunned semi-silence while the rest of us were left to digest what we had seen.
It was really as simple as this: Croatia were the better team and deserved to win. Handed a reprieve by Israel on Saturday, and requiring only a point against a team who had already qualified, England failed on a grand scale. Slaven Bilic's side were not fundamentally better players but they were a thousand times better organised and they did not make brainless individual errors. Of the England team only Crouch was anything like acceptable. The rest – with an honourable exception for Lampard's penalty – were varying degrees of abject.
Wayne Bridge will never again play so badly as he did last night, a performance so woeful that it seemed inconceivable that he could do so many things wrong. Steven Gerrard was a shadow of the player he is. In the centre of defence Sol Campbell looked all of his 33 years and Joleon Lescott was by no means reassuring. You could go on. "I read in the papers that you said none of my players would get in the England team," Bilic said. "Guys, wake up."
English football is wide awake this morning, surveying the wreckage. McClaren hung on grimly last night, refusing to contemplate resigning but privately fearful that the Football Association board meeting this morning will be the end for him. It can only be hoped that this time the FA does not impose upon itself any false deadlines that hurry it into appointing second and third choice candidates.
How will McClaren feel when he clears out his desk at Soho Square? That his players let him down after he picked a team that looked courageous and yet proved disastrous in the selection of Carson. The first 14 minutes were no ordinary England cock-up; not your run-of-the-mill shambles – this was a full-blown catastrophe from the eighth minute when the 22-year-old keeper let in the first goal.
The Portsmouth winger Niko Kranjcar picked the ball up in the inside left channel, took a few steps inside and hit a speculative shot that dipped and bounced in front of Carson. It was a moment that he will remember as long as he lives. The ball bounced in front of him, skipped up over and past his palms and into the goal. It was a shocking mistake, so bad that it made Paul Robinson's howler in the corresponding fixture in Zagreb look relatively harmless.
How do you respond to a mistake like that? True to form, England did exactly what they had done against Russia last month when they conceded a first goal. They made a bad situation worse by conceding a second. It is ever thus with this team; something goes wrong, then, as night follows day, something else does too.
Goal No 2 for Croatia was another symphony of mistakes and indecision. Eduardo was allowed to run virtually unchecked right to the edge of the area, the Arsenal striker looked up and squeezed a ball between Campbell and Lescott to Ivica Olic, who was onside thanks to Bridge. Olic jinked round the stranded Carson to score.
Sportingly, the fans waited until half-time to boo the players but they could have started a lot earlier. Between the two Croatia goals, England missed their one decent chance, Shaun Wright-Phillips shooting straight against Stipe Pletikosa. Beckham and Jermain Defoe came on at half-time and it was the Spurs man who had the immediate effect. Josip Simunic got a handful of Defoe's jersey in the area and the linesman signalled a foul.
It was a laughable penalty but up stepped Lampard to score and the chase was on. On 65 minutes Beckham's cross was chested down by Crouch and volleyed past Pletikosa.
They were back from the dead, except there was another twist in the tale. Carson had saved well from Olic, Bridge had conspired to hit his own bar then substitute Petric struck the decisive goal. Croatia kept forcing England back and on 77 minutes Petric hit a low drive that beat Carson.
The best team had won. And new Wembley was christened in the old-fashioned way: with the broken reputation of an England manager.
England (4-5-1): Carson (Aston Villa); Richards (Manchester City), Campbell (Portsmouth), Lescott (Everton), Bridge (Chelsea); Wright-Phillips, Lampard (Chelsea), Barry (Aston Villa), Gerrard (Liverpool) J Cole (Chelsea); Crouch (Liverpool). Substitutes used: Defoe (Tottenham) for Barry, h-t; Beckham (LA Galaxy) for Wright-Phillips, h-t; Bent (Tottenham) for Cole, 80.
Croatia (4-4-2): Pletikosa (Spartak Moscow); Simic (Milan), R Kovac (Borussia Dortmund), Josip Simunic (Hertha Berlin), Corluka (Manchester City); N Kovac (Salzburg), Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Modric (Dynamo Zagreb), Kranjcar (Portsmouth); Eduardo (Arsenal), Olic (Hamburg). Substitutes used: Petric (Borussia Dortmund), for Eduardo, 69; Pranjic (Heerenveen) for Kranjcar, 75; Rakitic (Schalke) for Olic, 84.
Referee: P Frojdfeldt (Sweden).
Croatia (Q) 12/9/2/1/28/8/21/29
Russia (Q) 12/7/3/2/18/7/11/24
WHO'S GOING TO EURO 2008
Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Cz Rep, Germany, Croatia, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Romania, Netherlands.
The draw for the championship takes place on Sunday 2 December in Lucerne. The tournament, hosted by Austria and Switzerland, runs from 7-29 June.Reuse content