Three years ago Macedonia's fans burnt a cross of St George and the players threatened to kill David Beckham. This time in Macedonia, Steve McClaren said that he hoped for "emotional control" from his players as the spectre of racism reared its ugly head.
The Macedonian Football Association admitted it had not been able to eradicate the problem totally. Black players in the England team were singled out for racist abuse when England last played in Macedonia in a Euro 2004 qualifier. Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and Emile Heskey were all abused by sections of the home crowd.
A spokesman for the Macedonian FA said that, although the governing body had taken out adverts in local newspapers to try to persuade supporters to behave, he could not guarantee they would have an effect on the night.
The spokesman said: "We have done our best to let people know this kind of behaviour is unacceptable. We do not have problems with violent fans, but there may be some issues with behaviour in the stands and [racist] flags."
In 2003, Macedonia were fined £11,000 for the behaviour of their fans.
McClaren wrestled nobly with the question of racist abuse from the stands "we have to handle these situations and handle them well".
"It's about emotional control with young players coming across these issues," McClaren said. "You can control the preparation, the work you do, the information you give to players. But some things you can't control like the opposition, the referee, the crowd, some decisions you may get, the weather, the pitch you have to cope with all them and come through it to win."
At least England's Euro 2008 qualification campaign should at last feel like it has begun in earnest tonight after the destruction of Andorra on Saturday. Despite his team scoringnine goals in two games, McClaren was forced into a defence of elements of his team yesterday. One lesson that the England manager has learnt is the necessity of a credible defence brief and McClaren arrived armed with statistics.
Eriksson would struggle to recall the names of the opponents; now McClaren bombards his inquisitors with pass completion rates and distances run during a match. We learnt, for example, that Frank Lampard had touched the ball more than 100 times during the Andorra match.
The England manager tried to build his defence around the old football truism that Macedonia "should not be underestimated", and who could blame him? He has inherited a team that looked so dysfunctional during the World Cup finals they needed the stability of a well-organised manager who could at least remember the name of the Macedonia coach.
It is easy to mock McClaren when he says things like, "It's the same approach whether we are playing Andorra, Macedonia, Brazil or Argentina" . But it was precisely Eriksson's failure to find a consistent approach that eventually undid the previous regime. "Look at Italy's result last weekend," McClaren implored and the world champions' draw at home to Lithuania in a Euro 2008 qualifier is indeed the reminder England need to tread carefully in the Gradski Stadium.
McClaren batted aside criticisms of Lampard and denied that the player was suffering from his World Cup finals malaise. "Against Andorra we were pleased with Frank, that's the only thing that matters. He did a job for the team, and I felt he did it very well. He was effective in other ways, rather than going forward and getting goals."
Tonight England may have to deal with some abuse from the stands, but these are the tricky away matches in qualification tournaments that, with the exception of defeat in Northern Ireland one year ago, Eriksson made a habit of winning. The road to Euro 2008 starts here and will take in increasingly hostile environments in Estonia, Croatia, Russia and Israel.
Srecko Katanec is Macedonia's impressive Slovenian coach, who previously led his own country to Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup finals and whose name McClaren successfully remembered yesterday. Their most dangerous forward is Goran Pandev, who scored 11 goals in Serie A for Lazio last season.
Macedonia's Artim Sakiri, the midfielder who ended David Seaman's career with a goal direct from a corner in October 2002 has a footnote in the history of English football.
Now playing in Finland, Sakiri, the man who threatened to kill Beckham, will struggle to make the side but he had an interesting perspective on England. He watched them fail in Germany with "disbelief. The problem seemed to be tactical with the coach. I don't know what they spoke about in the dressing-room or what they were looking for."Reuse content