If the old adage that the real character of a team only emerges when the going gets tough is true, then Sven Goran Eriksson's England may yet have the stomach to live to fight another day. While the ever-blundering David Seaman opted to leave St Mary's Stadium in Southampton through a side door, Michael Owen decided to face the music.
What is more, the normally imperturbable striker, who is not one for veering off his media-savvy course, launched an unusually passionate rallying cry. "If we get some stick," he said tersely, "then we'll know who our mates are. We'll stay together, and then when we win the European Championship in two years' time, we'll remember who gave us the stick."
Eriksson knows that actions speak louder than words, but, at the end of a wretched few days when England escaped from Slovakia with a fortuitous 2-1 victory and were then held by lowly Macedonia at home, any positives will do. Owen, one of the few players to acquit himself well over the course of the two qualifiers, was in realistic, yet optimistic, mode after Wednesday's débâcle.
While he readily admitted that England were "well below par" in both games, he also stressed that this was still the brightest generation of players in a long while. "I'm not going to try to kid anyone," said the Liverpool and England No 10. "We were very poor and should have done better against a team like that. Having said that, if you'd offered us a win and a draw from these two games during half-time in Bratislava [when England were 1-0 down], then we would have taken it."
Owen added: "Whatever people may say, I'm still confident we're on the right lines. I think that if you asked any manager which international team they would most like to be in charge of in Europe right now, then England would be right up there in the top one, two or three. We're young and we're exciting, but we've still got a lot to learn, too."
One of the most disappointing aspects of the back-to-back qualifiers was that the lessons of the World Cup did not appear to have been absorbed. In a worrying repeat of their quarter-final defeat against Brazil in Japan, England again resorted to launching long, and usually inaccurate, balls instead of chasing the game patiently.
The only difference on Wednesday, of course, was that Eriksson's men were facing Macedonia and not the world champions. Owen was loath to criticise the team's tactics, preferring instead to highlight the fact that England created numerous chances which they failed to convert.
"I believe my goal was perfectly legitimate," he said, referring to the delicate chip which was ruled out because of a dubious offside decision. "Smithy [Alan Smith] also had a couple of chances, and if one had gone in, we would not be talking like this."
The danger now is that this group of England players could follow in the footsteps of the current Portugal side, and end up being one of the best teams who seem destined never to achieve anything. Owen says that the players are aware of the pitfalls of over-hype.
He also admits that Wednesday's 2-2 draw has provided the perfect opportunity for a serious reality check. "After a game like that," he said, "you have mixed emotions. You feel very disappointed about the result, but have to look for some positives to take out ahead of the next match. We're a young team, and we have to accept that it is going to take us time to develop.
"Some people say that we lack an old head in the side, but the only way to find one is by trusting the current group. The only way to get experience is to play, and the only way to progress is to play in important matches. In the future, I'm confident we'll bear the fruits of this policy. We're willing to learn, and I'm sure we'll become better and stronger for this setback."
England have a long time to wait before the next qualifier, against Liechtenstein at the end of March 2003. Most of the players would no doubt have preferred to get Wednesday's poor result out of their systems earlier, not least goalkeeper Seaman, but Owen believes that the five months will allow the dust to settle. "No one's trying to hide the fact that we didn't play well," the 22-year-old said, "but I equally don't think we should panic too much. If you look at the [Macedonia] match, you have to say that they scored two goals from one chance.
"Their first [a direct corner which added to Seaman's growing list of gaffes] was probably the best corner you'll ever see. It had plenty of pace and was whipped in to the top corner. Their second [which came as a result of a poor Sol Campbell clearance] was a gift we gave them."
Owen may be playing down the severity of the draw's impact, but he is not dismissing the size of the task that lies ahead if England are going to reach the 2004 finals without resorting to the play-offs.
"What our current position means," he said, "is that we will need to win at least one of the games against Turkey, and then hope that they drop a couple of points here and there. We certainly can't afford to be beaten by the Turks if we want to go to Portugal, but we're capable of getting the right results." The Macedonians might have something to say about that.
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