The end of England's Golden Generation
As Wayne Rooney donned the Three Lions shirt for the 120th and last time in his career, it was not only the end of his international career but also the end of England's Golden Generation.
Yes, it was pretty much over a year ago when Rooney decided to call it a day on his international career but it was officially over after the friendly against the USA. A generation which was expected to end the national team's long wait for an international trophy failed to deliver on the big stage.
It was sad to see some of the best players the game has seen not able to succeed on the international stage. The reason for a lack of success was due to various reasons such as the manager not finding the right formation to get the best out of the players or the penalty woes or injuries to their star players or the exceeding expectations of an entire nation.
The Golden Generation excelled for their clubs but could go down as one of the most underachieved groups of players on the international stage.
The members of England's Golden Generation
The group of the players who represented the national team from 2000-2010 where renowned as the Golden Generation. The likes of Beckham, Terry, Ferdinand, Scholes, Gary Neville, Gerrard, Lampard, Owen, Ashley Cole, and Rooney were a part of this team. This group of players except for Ferdinand even played together during EURO 2004 but still couldn't get past the quarter-finals. It is indeed hard to believe that this all-star team couldn't win at the international level.
This group of players boasts of having won 48 Premier League winners medals among them. That is a mind-boggling number. Add to that, all of them are Champions League winners as well, except Owen. That is why the expectations were sky high whenever they appeared at a major tournament.
All of them are considered as Premier League Legends and considered as heroes at the clubs where they made a name for themselves. Still, when they played together they couldn't replicate their club form. The expectations alone were enough to burden these players and not perform at their best. To add to that the tactics of the managers didn't help them either.
The heightened expectations of a nation (2004-2006)
EURO 2004 was seen as the tournament where the 38-year long wait would end. When a team consists of stars in every position, it is always an expectation. Nonetheless, in England, the expectations were much more than ever. Rooney stepped up to the plate with a brace against Switzerland and Croatia to ensure a quarter-final berth against hosts Portugal after a defeat in the opening game against France.
Lampard scored twice during the group stage. Scholes and Gerrard also opened their accounts during the group stage. It seemed the team was in a good run of form until Rooney was injured during the quarter-final and taken off. Still, England had the firepower to win the match.
But their old foes - the penalty shootout got the better of them once again. Beckham and Rooney's replacement Vassell missed as England bowed out of the tournament. This was the tournament during which then England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson played Paul Scholes on the left wing. It turned out to be a bad decision as Scholes was not able to dictate the tempo of the game.
Playing Scholes, Gerrard, and Lampard together is a challenge no doubt. Either the manager should have opted to start with two of them or opted for a different formation to accommodate all the three in their preferred position. A 4-3-3 would have certainly worked wonders with Scholes pulling the strings in midfield behind Gerrard and Lampard but that never happened. We can only look back and think what if the manager had found a way to get the best out of these three and how it might have led to glory at some point.
Two years later at the World Cup in Germany, almost a similar team returned to put their demons of the past to rest. Scholes had retired while Ferdinand returned to the team after being suspended during EURO 2004 due to failing to attend a drug test. Rooney and Owen were not at their best at this tournament like the last.
A 1-0 win in the opening game against Paraguay followed by a 2-0 win against Trinidad & Tobago ensuring their qualification to the next round. A 2-2 draw in the final group game against Sweden ensured they top the group. Captain David Beckham's free-kick gave them a 1-0 win against Ecuador in the Round of 16 which was followed by the same old story.
Just like two years ago the 3 Lions were eliminated by Portugal in a penalty shootout. A match which is famously remembered for Rooney's red card. England did well to take it to penalties after playing with 10-men for most of the 120 minutes. Shockingly reliable spot kick takers Lampard and Gerrard missed the first two penalties.
Hargreaves converted the 3rd only for Carragher to miss the 4th as Ronaldo converted Portugal's 5th to take them to the last four. Yet again the stars of England failed to take back home the trophy. Sven-Goran Erikkson stepped down as the manager and David Beckham relinquished the armband after the tournament.
The worst phase of the Golden Generation (2008-2010)
Steve McClaren took over from Sven-Goran Eriksson. Chelsea skipper John Terry was handed the armband. The team was expected to put their setbacks behind and concentrate on the next tournament but what followed was a disaster. England failed to qualify for EURO 2008.
The fans were distraught and shocked. Nobody could believe it. In the final group game where a draw would have taken England through but they lost 3-2 against Croatia because of a blunder from keeper Scott Carson which led to the opening goal. Jeers ringed around Wembley stadium.
Without Terry and Ferdinand at the heart of the defense, they were opened up again and again. Without Rooney, the attack looked out of sorts. Had they not been injured and played the result might have been different but still, their replacements should have seen them through but it wasn't to be and duly McClaren was sacked the very next day.
Fabio Capello was appointed as the manager and things began to look up for England as they qualified for the World Cup without any blemishes or last minute hiccups. They finished the group with nine wins and a loss. The defeat to Croatia was avenged as they beat them 4-1 at Zagreb and 5-1 at Wembley.
The team seemed to have effortlessly transitioned from the reign of McClaren and adapted to the tactics of the Italian manager. With the kind of form and confidence the players were showing under the new manager, it seemed England could pose a threat for the title. In February 2010 controversy erupted regarding skipper John Terry. As a result, the FA and Capello decided to hand over the armband to Rio Ferdinand.
Two months later Rooney who was in the form of his life in the 2nd half of the season was ruled out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury. With that injury, Rooney's form also withered at the start of the tournament. Disaster struck further as Ferdinand was ruled out of the World Cup with an injury.
Liverpool skipper Gerrard was named as captain. Beckham was not even on the flight to South Africa. With all the uncertainty growing and England not having a world class goalkeeper cost them yet again as they drew against the United States because of a major error from Robert Green.
As a result, David James replaced Green in goal for the next game against Algeria but England failed to score and drew 0-0. Fans jeered them at the final whistle causing an outburst from a frustrated Rooney. Things weren't going as planned in the English camp. Finally, they got their much-needed win in the final game against Slovenia albeit it was 1-0 win which meant they finished 2nd in the group and were drawn to face Germany in the next round.
Familiar foes awaited the Three Lions. There was very little optimism in the camp though as England showed no signs of the form they had during qualification. Only a miracle could save them against the mighty Germans. As expected, Germany started the game dominantly and when Klose latched on to a goal kick from Neuer after easily holding off Upson he duly finished to give them the lead.
12 minutes later Podolski doubled the lead as he beat James at the near post with a shot which went through the keeper's legs. It looked like it would be a stroll for Germany but five minutes later England responded from Upson, who redeemed himself for his earlier error and pulled one back from Lampard's cross after a short corner.
Defoe had already struck the woodwork. Germany were showing signs of nervousness in the camp as it was a young team. Then came the moment of controversy as a Lampard shot from outside the box went in off the post. The ball had crossed the line by a yard before coming back out but it was deemed to have not crossed the line by the linesman. England were crestfallen.
That could have been the moment which would have turned around their World Cup campaign but they were denied that moment. In the 2nd half when a England free kick was cleared and Germany went rampant on the counter-attack which was started and duly finished by Muller.
Just a few minutes later Muller added a fourth to seal the game. Barry was culpable for the 3rd and 4th goals. All the voices who shouted out for Carrick to start were being heard by Capello that time but it was too late. England suffered their heaviest defeat at the World Cup and crashed out in the round of 16. Capello decided to stay till EURO 2012 but it was pretty much over for the Golden Generation as they failed to make a name for themselves yet again. The fact that it ended with humiliation in the last two tournaments is what makes it worse.
How it could have all turned out for the Golden Generation
Had Sven-Goran Eriksson found a way to play Scholes, Lampard, and Gerrard together they might have well won EURO 2004 but he decided to stick with the 4-4-2 formation which cost them. It again cost him two years later as Lampard and Gerrard both who are known for their attacking roles where deployed in a 2 man midfield which meant one had to play as a defensive anchor. It cost them in the final third. A holding midfielder would have helped the 2 midfield legends to unleash their attacking potential up front with Rooney.
Capello rectified it by playing Barry behind Lampard and Gerrard. It worked wonders during the qualifying campaign but it came back to bite him against Germany. Barry was known for his box-to-box game but he didn't have a brilliant range of passing and vision to distribute the ball and launch attacks. Carrick was the ideal player for that role. Yet again the tactical blunder cost them.
Also, Capello's decision to not start Joe Hart in goal despite him having an excellent season at Birmingham City on loan backfired as both Green and James made crucial errors which led to their exit. The woes in the penalty shootouts was another reason. Some would even say the team was cursed during a shootout as some of the best and reliable players from the penalty spot have missed for them.
Ferdinand, Gerrard and Lampard admitted that the club rivalries strained their relationships when they played for the national team which was also one of the reasons for the failure to win a trophy. They revealed that they rarely spoke to one another during their time with the national team. Maybe that's why they lacked the chemistry when they were on the field.
Looking back some might feel if the managers had got their tactics right in midfield alone this England team could have dominated that decade. If not dominated they could have won at least one of the aforementioned tournaments. Alas, it wasn't to be and still they are in search of their first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup.
Even Pep Guardiola stated in an interview that he was surprised that such a talented England team couldn't win a major tournament. The Golden Generation will be remembered and revered in English football history not for their achievements in the shirt of the 3 Lions but for the staggering amount of medals they won with their clubs.
Will there be another Golden Generation? Well, there could be. The current crop of players who led the nation to the semi-finals of a tournament for the first time in 28 years are considered to be the next Golden Generation. But they certainly didn't carry a burden of expectations like their predecessors which proved to be a blessing in disguise. That might just help them to cross the line and end the long drought for a trophy in the future.