England at major tournaments in the 21st century. Dear dear, it has been nothing but a never-ending tale of woe.
One thing about it has been that the woe has been on a sliding scale. Sometimes the failure has brought regret at the missed opportunity, other times anger at the sheer incompetence of it all. In the midst of it, there have been some, occasional, strong tournament performances.
I can only judge based on the England teams at major tournaments I have ever seen, with the first tournament I remember properly watching being, coincidentally, Euro 2000. There is no science to this, it is personal opinion. Feel free to debate the choices below the line. Nicely.
We go from worst to best:
9 - Euro 2008
How much worse can you get than failing to even qualify for a tournament? While Steve McLaren was unfortunate to an extent - goalkeeping howlers away to Russia and at home to Croatia were the ultimate tipping points - he also played unfamiliar formations, played the media abysmally and generally looked out of his depth. A very strong group of players failed in an average qualifying group. The nadir of modern English football.
8 - World Cup 2010
The general consensus was that England, after their then-best ever qualifying and golden generation still in force, would at least make the semi-finals, particularly through a simple group stage. The draw with USA was unfortunate, the nil-nil against Algeria was the single worst tournament performance ever - honestly, it was - and after a scraped win over the mighty Slovenia, England were deservedly dismantled by Germany, disallowed goal or not.
7 - Euro 2016
We didn't expect much of a developing side who can still deliver in 2018 and 2020 if their talent is fully recognised. But we did expect a manager to have more of a tactic than throw strikers on when it looked bad, and players to know how to pass and cross - and not have the worst free kick taker in the squad keep taking the things. The Wales win keeps this above 2010, barely.
6 - Euro 2000
Oh Kevin Keegan. Did we really think this was a good idea? I was only seven at the time, but how clearly I remember the joy of going 2-0 up against Portugal in a little over 10 minutes. The confusion at seeing a refusal of King Kev to defend this lead, and the turnaround to 3-2. The ecstasy of Shearer's header sinking Germany. The tears long into the night after Phil Neville's unnecessary tackle gave Romania the penalty that sent England home. Fun while it lasted I suppose.
5 - World Cup 2014
A lot of people forget how well England played against Italy - remember that Sterling howitzer after three minutes which everyone including the BBC graphics people thought was in - despite defeat. A poor first half against Uruguay was then overcome with a superbly worked equaliser. Then 34-year-old defensive midfielder Steven Gerrard (see the problem here?) missed a long ball, Luis Suarez did not, and England were going home, despite having given all they had.
4 - World Cup 2006
This being in the top half shows just how poor England have been at tournaments for 16 years. Yes they reached the quarter-finals - heady days by the standards of a decade later - but with the squad they had they should have gone further, and played so much better. I remember watching the Trinidad and Tobago group game. T&T should have won, which says it all.
3 - Euro 2012
The players enjoyed Roy Hodgson's management and were always quick to defend him, and the tournament which showed this off best was Euro 2012. Freed from the shackles and tyranny of the unpleasant Capello experience, England swept through their group, and defended like the Spartans at Thermopylae against the Persian army of Pirlo and his awesome football. Then penalties.
2 - World Cup 2002
When Beckham scuffed home the penalty won by Owen diving over the leg of the future Southampton and Spurs manager, who would have thought that would be the last time England beat a major nation at a major tournament? (I simply refuse to say fellow major...) They survived the Group of Death and dismantled Denmark and took the lead against Brazil. David Seaman has asked me not to recall what happened next.
1 - Euro 2004
England could, maybe should, have won this tournament. That isn't John Bull hyperbole, they played the best football in the group stages - ninety seconds of Zidane magic and Milan Baros for Czech Republic aside - and were six minutes, then later a wrongly disallowed goal, from beating the hosts, with or without Wayne Rooney. Holland and Greece in the semi-finals and final were beatable. Sigh. Oh well.
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