So it has come to this; requiring favours from Israel or Macedonia with home advantage but little else in their favour in the penultimate round of European Championship qualifying matches next month.
What England really needed – and had in their own hands – was to take six points from each of those sides, ranked fourth and fifth respectively in the group, instead of allowing both of them a deserved goalless draw in Tel Aviv and Manchester respectively. By sacrificing four points in those games as well as losing away matches to their two real rivals, Steve McClaren's team are now faced with missing out on a major tournament for thefirst time since the 1994 World Cup campaign ended Graham Taylor's tenure as manager.
Suddenly, it seems, recent history is no longer on England's side. In decisive qualifying games in the past 20 years they had almost always come good, hanging on for the required draw in Istanbul in 2003, Rome in 1997, Poznan and Katowice to see off Poland in 1991 and 1989. The sequence was only broken on Taylor's ill-fated trip to Rotterdam in 1993, memorably captured in the Channel 4 documentary as he berated a linesman over the referee's refusal to send off Ronald Koeman, who had stayed onto score a crucial goal: "The referee's got me the sack, thank him ever so much, won't you?"
If McClaren was thinking precisely the same thing as the Spanish referee awarded Russia a penalty with 20 minutes to play in Moscow last Wednesday, he kept the admission to himself. Long after the game he was still refusing to acknowledge that likelihood, clinging to the notion that Israel, now with nothing to play for, can repeat the draw they achieved in the Russian capital when the sides meet again in four weeks' time.
"You have a time of mourningbut we've still got a game to play and Russia have still got to go to Israel," he said. "It's up to them. We can't do anything about it. The only ones who can are Israeland we've just got to hope their approach is right and they get the result that we want.
"We'll know our destiny before we play Croatia and my job is to prepare the team to beat them. That's what I'm aiming to do for the next month, carry on as usual, get over this disappointment and move on. What disappoints me is we put ourselves into a great position that has now been taken away from us."
That last sentence may well go down as McClaren's epitaph, combining a grain of truth with a whole haystack of optimism. The dropped points against Croatia, Macedonia and Israel meant that England's position going to Moscow could never be "great", because they could not afford to lose there against resilient and skilful opposition whom they happened to defeat by a flattering 3-0 margin the previous month. Even when level with 20 minutes to play, England were being pushed too far back as Guus Hiddink reversed his defeat in the tactical battle of Wembley by spotting that Joleon Lescott – under instruction, according to leaks from the dressing-room – was playing too close to Sol Campbell and leaving a huge gap at left-back that Joe Cole was not equipped to cover. It was that hole that Wayne Rooney, dropping deeper and deeper for the team's sake, found himself trying to protect when he conceded the penalty.
Football logic says that the momentum England were slowly building up over five successive 3-0 victories (four of them against moderate to weak opposition) has now been lost and has switched to the Russians. Israel may conceivably confound the odds in Tel Aviv on Saturday 17 November, but evenMcClaren with all his positive thinking did not suggest that Croatia might suffer in Macedonia the same day, threatening their prospects before arriving at Wembley four days later.
It is necessary to go further back in history for an instance of fortune unexpectedly favouring England with a smile in such unpropitious circumstances; more than a quarter of a century,in fact, when Ron Greenwood's team of Bryan Robson, Kevin Keegan and Trevor Francis were attempting to follow a poor effortat the 1980 European Championship with qualification for the World Cup in Spain. With two teams to go through there should have been little difficulty, but two identical results to McClaren's early on – an away defeat and then a goalless draw at home – put the pressure on.
Losing in Switzerland amid familiar crowd mayhem was such a blow that Greenwood stewed on it for a week, offering his resignation immediately after victory in Hungary seven long days later. He was talked out of it, only to suffer another humiliating loss at the start of the following season, on the occasion of the Norway television commentator's famous tirade ("Your boys took a hell of a beating").
No fewer than four successive results involving other contenders then went the best possible way for England as Switzerland and Romania cut each other's throats. Hungary arrived for the final game at Wembley having already won the group and England brushed aside their uninterested challenge just as they ought to if Croatia are already through.
Could McClaren survive without managing to qualify? The scenario was tentatively offered in these pages a fortnight ago of "an unlucky single-goal defeat by Russia, followed by a resounding, if vain, victory against the group winners, Croatia", after which the players (happier with the devil they know) come out in support of him, and Arsène Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Hiddink repeat that they do not want the job. There are certainly some among the 14-strong Football Association International committee who have no appetite for another change less than two years after the last one, all the more so given the messy circumstances in which McClaren somehow emerged 18 months ago. One said last night: "It's too easy just to change the manager. Almost all the most successful club managers have had times when they could have been discarded." Whether McClaren could win a vote is still open to doubt, but the possibility is an intriguing one.
The argument he will advance in his report on the campaign – one that his greatest detractors accept – is that progress has been made from the darkest days of last spring. As he put it on Wednesday: "I thought at the beginning that I was equipped for the job, thought it after five games and feel it now because we're building something. I think people can see that and couldn't question the players and their attitude. I enjoy the job and have a great set of players to work with. The spirit's been excellent all the way through. It's built up the momentum as it's gone on. At the end of the day we're still not out. We live in hope."
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