When did England last play well? If England need any inspiration tomorrow, and to judge from Saturday's display against Macedonia they will in abundance, a glance at the opposition may provide it. Upon seeing Croatia's checkcloths, the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and those other England men who appear to be struggling through quicksand in their search for form, should think back to a steamy night in Lisbon's Stadium of Light, and a very convincing 4-2 victory over the same opponents.
They may recall that, after conceding an early goal at a set-piece to Niko Kovac, they produced a vibrant expression of the attacking arts with Rooney at the core. The then teenage tiro scored twice and made a goal for Paul Scholes before a brief Croat revival was firmly squashed by Lampard.
The only problem is, this requires reeling back the memory tape more than two years and 30 internationals, back to June 2004. Is it really that long since England played well? It would be churlish not to admit there have been some fine results in the intervening months, notably the defeat of Argentina in Geneva last winter; there have also been some brave gritty victories on foreign fields, such as those in Poland and Azerbaijan during World Cup qualifying; and some celebratory thrashings of weak opponents - a category Greece must come into to judge by their display at Old Trafford this season. And there have been very few defeats. But there has not, subsequent to the thrilling dispatch of Croatia, been a truly convincing display against serious opposition, one that suggested England, finally, were about to live up to the hype.
Not even against Argentina? No. If we are honest, the abiding memory is as much of a bewildered Ledley King watching Juan Roman Riquelme run the game, as it is of Michael Owen's late goals - scored, it should be noted, after Riquelme had been replaced. As Ashley Cole wrote: "If you looked closely at the game, we'd got battered."
Arguably the best display since Croatia was the 2-1 defeat of Poland in Manchester last October. That confirmed England's qualification for last summer's World Cup and quelled the concern which the previous month's defeat in Belfast had prompted. But Poland have not beaten England since 1973 and, as they went on to prove in Germany, and by losing at home to Finland last month, are a desperately limited side. Even then, England were being held until the final 10 minutes. That, and the Argentina game, are probably the last occasions Rooney sparkled for England. The last time Rooney scored in competitive action was that match against Croatia.
Given this long run of moderate and mediocre performances, it is pertinent to ask how it was so many people, including the squad themselves, believed England would suddenly hit form in Germany and win the World Cup. But it is more relevant to ask, as McClaren will be doing, how they recover the vim and verve of that night in Lisbon.
It is not that simple. The old failings, an inability to pass the ball, poor decision-making and haphazard technique, are endemic in English football and will require huge investment in coaching and attitudes to change. That is a commitment which the Football Association, to judge from Trevor Brooking's difficulties within the organisation, and the mothballing of the National Football Centre at Burton, are, unforgivably, either unwilling, or unable, to make. It is also beyond McClaren's remit and reach.
In the few hours available to him, he must restore the team's confidence without letting them slip, once more, into complacency. At least, after Saturday, and the subsequent media reaction, the latter should be ruled out even if much of what is written by, and heard from, this squad suggests they believe rather too much of their own publicity.
Lifting their currently, and probably briefly, becalmed belief is another matter. Confidence is fundamental to sporting success but it is much more easily lost than gained. Rarely has the impact of a drop in confidence been more vividly illustrated than the collapse of Arsenal's Invincibles after Manchester United ended their 49-game unbeaten run.
In football, when confidence is high, good players are instinctive; when confidence dips, they question themselves and decisions are either rushed or delayed, which results, either way, in error. McClaren's problem is compounded by so many of his players being out of form at club level. They bring their individual worries to the international arena. Their unease is then magnified by the very real pressure many England players feel under.
Pressure? Such a complaint will seem, even to people doing conventional jobs, never mind those in the emergency services or armed forces, ridiculous, but in the cocoon in which many footballers operate, perspective is a stranger and some become inhibited by the fear of failing in such a public spotlight.
Since they will certainly be exposed to the full glare of public and press opinion tomorrow night, another palsied performance might be anticipated. Yet one quality most English footballers do have is a bloody-minded determination to prove people wrong. They may thus grind out a result, as they did in Warsaw during qualifying.
Since this cannot be relied upon, it is time for Bill Beswick, McClaren's psychologist sidekick, to justify his presence on the FA's payroll. And McClaren perhaps should splice into his pre-match briefing some clips from that Lisbon night when Rooney tormented the Croats in the hope of provoking a reprise. Then the intervening 28 months can be put down as a hard lesson in hubris.
Overrated? How they've performed
England's last genuinely impressive performance and result was the Euro 2004 group game against Croatia in Lisbon. Here, Football Correspondent Sam Wallace rates the games since then and awards each England display a mark out of 10.
* England 0 Macedonia 0 (ECQ, 7 Oct 2006): 4/10
Macedonia 0 England 1 (ECQ, 6 Sept 2006): 6/10
England 5 Andorra 0 (ECQ, 2 Sep 2006): 7/10
England 4 Greece 0 (Friendly, 16 Aug 2006): 7/10
England 0 Portugal 0 * (WC qtr-final, 1 July 2006): 6/10
England 1 Ecuador 0 (WC 2nd rnd, 25 Jun 2006): 5/10
Sweden 2 England 2 (WCGp, 15 Jun 2006): 6/10
England 1 Paraguay 0 (WCGp, 10 Jun 2006): 5/10
England 6 Jamaica 0 (Friendly, 3 June 2006): 7/10
England 3 Hungary 1 (Friendly, 30 May 2006): 7/10
England 2 Uruguay 1 (Friendly, 1 Mar 2006): 7/10
Argentina 2 England 3 (Friendly, 12 Nov 2005): 8/10
England 2 Poland 1 (WCQ, 12 Oct 2005): 7/10
England 1 Austria 0 (WCQ, 8 Oct 2005): 6/10
N Ireland 1 England 0 (WCQ, 7 Sep 2005): 1/10
Wales 0 England 1 (WCQ, 3 Sep 2005): 7/10
Denmark 4 England 1 (Friendly, 17 August 2005): 2/10
Colombia 2 England 3 (Friendly, 31 May 2005): 6/10
USA 1 England 2 (Friendly, 28 May 2005): 6/10
England 2 Azerbaijan 0 (WCQ, 30 Mar 2005): 6/10
England 4 N Ireland 0 (WCQ, 26 March 2005): 7/10
England 0 Netherlands 0 (Friendly, 9 Feb 2005): 4/10
Spain 1 England 0 (Friendly, 17 Nov 2004): 3/10
Azerbaijan 0 England 1 (WCQ, 13 Oct 2004 ): 7/10
England 2 Wales 0 (WCQ, 9 Oct 2004): 6/10
Poland 1 England 2 (WCQ, 8 Sep 2004): 7/10
Austria 2 England 2 (WCQ, 4 Sep 2004): 4/10
England 3 Ukraine 0 (Friendly, 18 Aug 2004): 7/10
Portugal 2 England 2 * (EC qtr-final, 24 Jun 2004): 6/10
Croatia 2 England 4 (ECGp 21 Jun 2004): 9/10
Key: * = lost on penalties.
ECQ = European Championship qualifier. WCQ = World Cup qualifier. ECGp = European Championship group game. WCGp = World Cup group game.Reuse content