It was 68 years ago that our fathers went forth to another continent and lost 1-0 to the United States. The goal was scored by Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian accountancy student who washed dishes for money. England had entered their first World Cup in 1950 as one of the favourites to win, with players who have since passed into legend. Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Wilf Mannion and Alf Ramsey all played that day in Belo Horizonte in Brazil, and have since been inducted into English football’s Hall of Fame. Another inductee, Stanley Matthews, had been kept in reserve for later in the tournament. Forget Iceland – the legendary defeat to an American team who were rank amateurs is the most embarrassing defeat in England’s history. “USA 1 England 0 – a fact like that, it shakes and grinds at the very roots of your culture,” wrote Pete Davies in All Played Out. “It’s unthinkable.” Three days later England lost their final group game against Spain and went out of the World Cup.

At the time, it was considered an aberration. In England, there was a general distrust of Fifa’s new-fangled World Cup, which was only confirmed by the freakish nature of a defeat in which England had largely battered a team beneath their stature. Not only that, but it took place in the New World, with its unfamiliar climate and conditions. No patterns were starting to be formed here; it’s not like a team of virtual unknowns could give England a bloody nose in the sanctuary of the Empire Stadium at Wembley.

That school of thought held water for just three more years. Hungary’s seminal 6-3 scudding of England at Wembley in November 1953 sent the whole country into shock, prompting a bout of agonising introspection and self-doubt. They had once stood alone; now England stood there bemused as others accelerated away from them. It is a spasm that has repeated down the decades, as England have struggled forlornly to get back on their fucking perch. The psychological blows of 1950 and 1953 are English football’s end of empire defeats.

In that context, it’s possible to view England’s triumph at the 1966 World Cup as the last kick of a dying horse. Ramsey was now manager and his team containing Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Gordon Banks were so good that they didn’t even need to call on Jimmy Greaves to sort out Argentina, Portugal and West Germany in the knockout stages. Until they surrendered their crown in defeat to West Germany in Mexico in 1970, England were briefly imperious again.

Outside of that limited resurrection, English international football is a story with the monotonous repetition of a Stewart Lee routine. It mostly comprises quarter-final losses in tournaments to the first decent team faced, penalty shoot-out woes and, as in 1973, 1983, 1993 and 2007, the embarrassment of not qualifying for a tournament at all. The most recent of those humblings was a defeat that remains an open wound and was administered to an England squad that had been expected to fight against the tide of history. On 21 November 2007 England met their Waterloo when, on a night of driving rain at Wembley, they were flushed out of the qualifiers for the 2008 European Championship by Croatia.

“It's a memory I will have to take to the grave with me,” Steven Gerrard said six years later, though it now has even weightier company. “One of the lowest moments of my international journey. One of those memories that just keeps coming back and coming back.” The memory is brutally piercing and not just because of proximity. Jan Tomaszewski’s invincible clowning in goal for Poland in 1973 and Allan Simonsen’s penalty kick for Denmark ten years later both rattled English football when they crushed England’s chances in a Wembley qualifier, but Croatia was different. In the years that had followed those earlier occasions, England had recovered. Their rain-sodden runaround from the Croats sent them into a tailspin and things have never quite been the same since.

And yet, in the years before the defeat, things could have been so different. In 2001, despite a tediously xenophobic reaction from some sections of the press, Sven-Göran Eriksson became the first foreign manager to take charge of the England team. The jingoistic nonsense subsided within a few months, as England qualified for the 2002 World Cup largely thanks to a stunning 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich. Moreover, by both inheritance and design, the Swede Eriksson cobbled together a young squad with genuinely mouthwatering potential. Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Jamie Carragher, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Owen Hargreaves, Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney all had won or would eventually go on to win the Champions League. Sol Campbell would play and score in one such final and Michael Owen had won the Ballon d’Or in 2001. Most of them would help to form the bedrock of the ‘Big Four’ of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal that began to dominate the latter stages of the Champions League from 2005-09. They were an exceptional group, and quickly given a tag that would be their yardstick.

“The whole Golden Generation thing is quite frustrating for us players,” Lampard later said. “We didn't make it up. Adam Crozier did, and look what happened to him.” Crozier was briefly the chief executive of the Football Association, previously employed by Saatchi & Saatchi and tasked with spin-doctoring his new employers out of their Victorian mindset and into the 21st century. With a mandate for change and an eye on commerce and image, he was right on the zeitgeist. “As an England player of that time – I call them the Blair years – I have always refused to be measured by a title dreamt up by someone with no intimate knowledge of football,” wrote Neville in the Daily Telegraph in 2014.

But they were measured by it – and when the Golden Generation went prospecting at international tournaments, they came back with nothing. In three tournaments in a row between 2002 and 2006, England were knocked out in the quarter-finals. They folded meekly to Brazil in Shizuoka in 2002 and then lost to Portugal on penalties in the 2004 European Championship and 2006 World Cup. In each instance, their nemesis was the Brazilian manager Luiz Felipe Scolari. Portugal knew all about golden generations, having built over a decade of international football around their youth teams that had won the 1991 and 1993 World Youth Cups. England’s, built on expectancy, had fallen far short.

An analysis from a distance now does reveal that, in terms of consistency, 2002-06 is England’s best run in consecutive international tournaments since Ramsey’s side of 1966-70. Eriksson’s team also delivered one of England’s most famous results – the 5-1 – and one of the finest: the 1-0 victory in the group stage against Argentina in 2002 is England’s best tournament result against a major nation outside of the 1966 World Cup. There is also the great what-might-have-been of Euro 2004, at which the thrilling emergence of the teenage Rooney was cut short by a broken foot and an unfortunately disallowed goal had denied England a place in the semi-finals.

For all of that, there was a hefty debit column. Even with such a talented group, England were heavily criticised for being too defensive during games, particularly when they were in the lead. Progress through the 2006 World Cup seemed to take place at a glacial speed, and was at odds with all the hoopla ahead of the tournament. Beckham’s incredible level of celebrity seemed to ripple right through the squad and even to those associated to it, with the Wives-and-Girlfriends sideshow receiving a distracting amount of coverage at England’s base in Baden-Baden. A pre-tournament injury to Rooney was a brutal blow, which seemed to sap any joy out of the build-up. Eriksson’s professionalism was also under question, with tabloid revelations about his personal and working life seeing him increasingly dismissed as an artful philanderer who would only slide out of bed to pocket his eye-watering salary. He had already agreed to leave his position after the 2006 World Cup. When the Golden Generation again fell at the quarter-finals in Germany, the relationship between England and its national side was, to say the least, a little testy.

The FA wanted Scolari to come in and finally drag the team over the winning line. After a successful interview, he turned them down as the FA wanted to announce the agreement ahead of the World Cup. Martin O’Neill had talks too, but was passed over. The job went to Steve McClaren, the assistant to Eriksson who had guided Middlesbrough to the Uefa Cup final weeks before the 2006 World Cup. That run, which included two astonishing four-goal comeback victories over Basel and Steaua Bucharest, was enough to swing it for him. McClaren was ultra-conscious of his image thereafter; he had his teeth whitened and briefly hired the services of the since disgraced PR guru Max Clifford.

His appointment felt underwhelming and led to the moniker of ‘Second Choice Steve’. It was hardly the clean break from the previous regime that many had demanded. In a further retrograde step, McClaren recruited the former England manager Terry Venables onto his coaching staff. Their relationship had a rocky beginning. Not wanting to feel undermined, McClaren asked a thoroughly piqued Venables to warm up the squad, wear civvy clothes rather than the England coaching gear and not be present on the bench during matches. That initial rift was eventually repaired, but it was indicative of a clumsy approach to man-management.

McClaren’s chumminess with a squad to which he had been a surrogate big brother for the previous five years was also a concern. “I felt he could have done better than refer to players by their nicknames,” Venables wrote in his autobiography, “with ‘Stevie G’ as an example. I didn’t think he had to do that to prove his closeness to the squad and, innocent though it was, it didn’t go down well with the general public. It seemed a bit naïve.” McClaren’s first big call was intended to remove all the doubts surrounding him; he axed Eriksson’s outgoing captain Beckham from the squad altogether. “It’s going to be totally different,” he enthused. “I’m going to do it my way. It’s going to be different from Sven.”

Emboldened in his new gig, McClaren set about the long slog of qualifying for the 2008 European Championship in Austria and Switzerland. In their qualifying group England were joined by Andorra, Israel, FYR Macedonia, Russia, Estonia and Croatia. It was the last time a European qualifying section didn’t bring with it the safety net of the play-offs – you were either in or you were out and only the top two in each group would qualify for the finals. England started reasonably enough, walloping Andorra at home and then beating Macedonia away, although in October 2006 the return with the Macedonians at Old Trafford saw England frustrated by a goalless draw. Four days after that came their first tussle with Croatia.

It was virtually impossible to win in Zagreb. The Croats had never lost a qualifier there and only two teams had ever beaten them in the city outside of that – a French team that would within six weeks win Euro 2000 and the Nazis in a wartime showpiece match in 1942. Rather than keep it tight, McClaren and Venables decided to try playing with three at the back, shoehorning their three central defensive stars Terry, Ferdinand and Carragher into one unit. It was a disaster. England stank and lost 2-0, with a Neville back pass bobbling over Paul Robinson’s scything air shot for the second. The press gave England what for, though other commentators found the result entirely explicable. “What kind of a world is it,” asked an incredulous Sir Alex Ferguson, “where people think England will win easily against Croatia, who have not lost a [competitive] game at home for 14 years?”

McClaren’s world was starting to cave in just months into the job. After a goalless draw against Israel in Tel Aviv in March 2007, he was caught on camera jokingly suggesting to the team bus driver that he run over the Sun journalist Brian Woolnough, part of the pack of now howling critics. The backlash against the Golden Generation was also in full swing, led by someone who could loosely be described as a peer. When a slew of post-World Cup autobiographies from the England squad hit the shops ahead of Christmas, Joey Barton squealed for attention. "England did nothing in that World Cup,” he said. “So why were they bringing books out? ‘We got beat in the quarter-finals. I played like shit. Here's my book.’” Barton got his own chance with England in a 1-0 defeat in a friendly against Spain in February 2007. After a 12-minute cameo appearance in which he could have easily been sent off, the disparity between gob-jangling and actual talent was obvious. He was never seen in an England shirt again.

The fans were now turning as well. Criticism of the team from the stands in 2007 started to home in on Frank Lampard, booed vociferously in a summer friendly with Brazil even though he had been voted the England fans’ player of the year in 2004 and 2005. David Bentley, who had pulled out of the European Under-21 Championship that summer citing fatigue, was given pelters for that disloyalty when he later made his senior debut against Israel. The whole team copped it too. When England were still goalless against Andorra at half-time in Barcelona in March, the poisonous reaction of England’s support was only amplified by the absence of any other fans in the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys. Despite the derision England still managed to turn their faltering campaign around. Three goals in the second half against Andorra secured the first of five 3-0 wins on the spin in qualifying, also seeing off Estonia away and Israel, Russia and Estonia at home.

Then came the retreat in Moscow. Rooney gave England the lead against Russia on the Luzhniki Stadium’s artificial pitch with a stunning volley, before conceding a penalty in the second half that Roman Pavlyuchenko scored to bring the Russians level. With England panicking, Pavlyuchenko scored again four minutes later, tucking in a rebound after Robinson had palmed a catchable shot at his feet. That red-faced October had removed England’s destiny from their own hands.

The following month all Russia and Croatia had to do was win in Israel and Macedonia respectively and England’s final game with Croatia would be meaningless. Their visitors would already be qualified and Russia would only have to flick aside Andorra on the same evening to progress with them. Surprisingly, both teams lost. Russia pushed for the win in Tel Aviv and were sucker-punched in the last minute to lose 2-1, Croatia lost to Macedonia in a match that was virtually played under water, though safe in the knowledge that they had qualified for the whole second half. With one group match left for each team, the table read Croatia 26 points, England 23 points, Russia 21 points. There was no doubt that Russia were going to beat Andorra while England played Croatia. England’s head-to-head record with Russia showed an aggregate of 4-2 in their favour – therefore, by Uefa’s rules, a draw against the already qualified Croats would be enough to proceed.

Although there was a palpable sense of relief for a few days, England had huge problems in defence going into the game. Ferdinand was suspended and Terry was recovering from injury but did not make it; one of their potential back-ups, Carragher, had quit international football in the summer of 2007 out of frustration at a lack of opportunities and being played out of position when they arrived. This led to a hilarious confrontation with the Talksport blowhard Adrian Durham live on the air, with Carragher opting for a different sort of national duty by basically offering Durham out after the shtick-jock had called him a bottler for retiring early.

Ledley King, Michael Dawson and Ashley Cole were injured too, while Gary Neville’s career had effectively been ended six months earlier when he was folded in half in a Premier League match by a tackle from Gary Speed. England were forced to field an unfamiliar back four of Micah Richards, Wayne Bridge, Joleon Lescott and Sol Campbell, who was 33 years old and playing at Portsmouth. Richards had been given his debut under McClaren and was one of the few successes of the brave new world, but it was still a brittle-looking rearguard.

The problems were compounded up front. Rooney injured himself training with Manchester United the day before the squad was picked and was ruled out, while Owen’s brittle leg muscles snapped like banjo strings again during England’s low-key friendly in Austria five days ahead of the Croatia game. Instead Peter Crouch, with a tidy 13 goals in 23 games for England but recently usurped at Liverpool by Fernando Torres, would plough a lonely furrow up front. Gerrard, Joe Cole and Lampard, the last recalled after a spell on the bench, would be required to join the attack and give him a hand.

That left McClaren with three big decisions. Firstly, he plumped for Gareth Barry over Hargreaves to anchor his five-man midfield. The second was what to do about Beckham. Although McClaren had dropped him, Beckham’s form during the title run-in for Real Madrid in 2006-07 had forced a recall at the end of the season. The only problem was that Beckham, believing his England and Real Madrid career to be over at the start of 2007, signed up to play for the LA Galaxy in the United States that summer. Although his comeback had partly reinvigorated England, he had picked up niggly injuries in the States and was well below the level of fitness needed for such a game. Beckham was put on the bench as insurance and McClaren went with Shaun Wright-Phillips instead.

Lastly came the bombshell that Robinson must have feared after a string of mistakes – he was dropped in favour of Aston Villa’s 22-year old goalkeeper Scott Carson, who had made his England debut in Austria. After months of appearing conservative, particularly with the recall of Beckham, McClaren had suddenly gone radical. Carson was promising, but he was raw. He was on loan at Aston Villa from Liverpool, where he had made a brilliant one-handed save at a key moment in the quarter-final of the Champions League against Juventus in 2005. It wasn’t the most famous sliding doors moment of Liverpool’s run that year, but it was highly important. Portentously, Carson had also shipped a soft one in the second half. Knife-edge games like a qualifying decider can rarely accommodate the latter. McClaren was taking a huge risk, but it would all be fine if the already-qualified Croats just turned up and went through the motions.

A lot of people were convinced they would. “The stitch-up detector will be switched on again in midweek when Croatia visit Wembley with nothing to play for,” wrote Gabriele Marcotti on a potential conspiracy in the Times. “Croatia are already through, England need a point. Russian eyes are already vigilant.” Whether Croatia turned up or not, nothing could shake McClaren’s faith in his patchwork side of Golden Generation regulars and stand-ins. Even before it became apparent a draw would suffice, he was steadfast. “If we need to beat Croatia we’ll only need one goal and we’re capable of doing that,” he had said before Russia dropped points against Israel. “We’ve got Crouch’s height and our midfielders are capable of scoring goals. We won’t need four or five. We’ve got the players.” Even though they’d already qualified, the opposition that were flying in to London to face England had other sources of motivation.

“We want to prove how good we really are,” said the Croatia and Portsmouth midfielder Niko Kranjčar ahead of the game. “We know the pitch on Wednesday will be brilliant and it will suit the way we play. This is our opportunity to take on a big nation like England at a great arena like Wembley and let the world see they can count on us to play well at the Euros. We want to send a message. We will get respect if we do that.” That type of bluster is not unusual for a visiting team at Wembley, but Croatia were not your usual visiting team.

On 17 October 1990, as England basked in the afterglow of the World Cup in Italy, Croatia played their first official international in 45 years, against the United States. For years, their players had provided an edge to the Yugoslavia team. With a strong independence movement on the rise in Croatia, the country was about to go it alone and the national team would be a potent symbol of their new identity. Croatia won the game 2-1 and debuted their iconic new kit, a Millets-esque red and white checkered design based on the Croatian coat of arms. When Croatia emerged from the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars in the nineties to take their place in international football, they made a habit of tweaking the noses of their supposed betters.

 

Croatia were eye-catching at Euro 96, after beating Italy in the qualifiers, and then beat Germany and the Netherlands on their way to finishing third at the 1998 World Cup. At the Japan/Korea World Cup in 2002 Croatia scored another famous win over Italy and, lest any Englishman forget, had comfortably beaten England earlier in the qualifiers for Euro 2008. Their manager Slaven Bilić, a classy and rugged defender from their team in the nineties, had previously coached their under-21s and promoted several of their players to his squad.

The Croatian team were dotted around leagues across Europe. Their forward Eduardo was at Arsenal, the right-back Vedran Ćorluka was at Manchester City and the centre-back Dario Šimić was with AC Milan. Others like Niko Kovač, Ivica Olić and Josep Šimunić played in the re-emerging Bundesliga while the wicked right foot of Darijo Srna was on regular display in Ukraine. Yet it was the only one still playing in their homeland who was desperate to get at England. “Boss, we can’t wait,” the young, elfin Luka Modrić of Dinamo Zagreb excitedly told Bilić before the game. “Can you imagine when we come out at Wembley? We’re going to fly!”

The easiest mode of transport across Wembley that night would have been a jet ski. England’s redeveloped national stadium had opened, years late and hundreds of millions of pounds over budget, for a summer friendly with Brazil a few months earlier. The state of the pitch had been a concern ever since and was compounded on a bitter November evening by a relentless downpour before and during the match. An NFL game between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants a few weeks earlier had also cut the turf up badly, and the yard markings were still visible on the pitch.

England’s new stadium was a monument to the way of thinking brought in by Crozier: brash, flash and reeking of commerce, with its overpriced snacks and empty corporate seats at kick-off. At a banquet ahead of the match, the FA’s Chairman Geoff Thompson wished good luck to “Steve McQueen and his England team” in his speech to assorted dignitaries. Further chuckles came when the opera singer Tony Henry belted out Croatia’s anthem, “Our Beautiful Homeland”, before the game and mispronounced one of the lines in Croatian as “my penis is a mountain”. Oblivious to that hilarity, there was precious little good spirit from the England fans. As is their wont they booed the Croatian anthem ferociously, an ugly din amid the opulence. Welcome to Hell, the burgers are eight quid.

When the game kicked off Croatia settled into it quickly, all crisp touch and deft movement. England were busy, energetic and clearly up for it. In his first sliding tackle of the game, water and gravity carried captain for the night Gerrard for a five-yard slide across the touchline on his arse. The match rattled along at a crisp pace, with keeping busy a sensible option to detract from the miserable weather. Joe Cole had a flash header at Croatia’s goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa from 15 yards, but it was something and nothing. On the touchline McClaren was stationed under an umbrella to keep the driving rain off his head, pensively sipping water. And then, in the eighth minute, it happened.

After good work by Srna down the left Kranjčar picked up the ball, 35 yards from goal and completely isolated. The age-old maxim for playing in slippery conditions is to work the goalkeeper with an early shot to see if he can hold it – a maxim that applies even more when said goalkeeper is a kid making his competitive debut. Kranjčar opened his body out to the right and wound his foot back like a quarterback’s arm, launching a monstrous, dipping shot right down the throat of Carson. The ball touched down just before it reached the goalkeeper, who was tentatively trying to get his hands and body behind the shot. It fizzed wickedly off the turf, clipped Carson’s left wrist and flew into the top corner of the net.

“Ohhhh… it’s gone right through!” exclaimed the BBC commentator John Motson. There was a brief, bemused silence around Wembley, quickly filled by the 7,000 Croatian fans. Even by the standards of a modern England goalkeeper, it was a horrific mistake. For a long time, this had been the one position on the field in which English football had raged against its diminished standing in the world. From Gordon Banks right through to David Seaman, England’s goal had regularly been guarded by high class operators. In the early years of the new millennium Seaman had started letting in soft ones and was dropped. The same fate befell David James and then Robinson, a baton-passing of high-profile clangers.

“It was more Frank Carson than Scott, wasn’t it?” zinged the co-commentator Mark Lawrenson, whose snarky, 19th-hole banter would be laced right through the evening. England created a couple of chances to equalise immediately. Shaun Wright-Phillips blasted a point-blank shot straight at Pletikosa and minutes later had a dangerous low cross brilliantly cleared by Ćorluka. After the worst possible start, the prospect of England quickly retrieving the situation looked extremely likely. Then, the Croats broke up the field.

Eduardo galloped through the English half with the ball, an attack in which he and his only support, Olić, were outnumbered by five England defenders. Lacking other options, Eduardo squared up as he reached the penalty area. With all the English players static and holding different offside lines, Eduardo slipped a delicate through ball between the legs of Campbell and into the area. Olić timed his run perfectly, ghosting through the shambles to collect the pass. He smoothly went around Carson and, with maximum contempt, put the ball into the empty net without even bothering to look at the target. “Is the flag up?” asked a desperate Motson. “The flag is not up! And Olić has scored! Olić has scored for Croatia! It’s two-nil! You can’t believe this!”

The camera cut to McClaren, bearing a haunted look and chugging water like he wished it was neat vodka. In just 14 minutes his man of iron decision to play Carson had blown up in his face, and the makeshift back four had been eviscerated en masse by one nutmeg. Bridge, who had been the last man and played Olić onside for the second, was in the early stages of what would be the most harrowing of personal nightmares. As a collective, the experience was shaping up to be one that might scar England forever.

For the rest of the half England played in a style that was almost a parody of Albion’s failings. Long, diagonal balls were pinged at the napper of Crouch, in the misguided hope that Gerrard or Lampard could run on the knock-down and provide some lung-busting heroics as the now desperate crowd willed them forward. It was an anthem for doomed hoofs, with the Croats opting simply to let Crouch win the first ball while they picked up the second. As England thrashed around like a wounded animal Croatia smoothly worked a succession of passes in and around them, using the wet surface to zip the ball to its destination. The understated arrogance with which they manoeuvred their way across Wembley was spellbinding. Even Pletikosa took the piss, catching one awful, looped cross from Bridge with one hand.

Gerrard tried to dive to win an advantageous free-kick, which was then awarded the other way. The harder he tried to get something going the worse he seemed to play, with even his usually reliable set-piece delivery abandoning him. Instead, the midfielder bossing the game was the remarkable Modrić. His prophecy to Bilić had come true. Modrić wasn’t flying, he was gliding, serenely and menacingly working Croatia into England’s half at will. All the while, the conditions were showing up their opponents. Campbell slid fifteen yards off the pitch after one desperate tackle and later in the half watched his simple square pass skid off for a throw-in. As the half drew to a close, word came through that the Russians had taken the lead against Andorra. Modrić then almost added a third, fizzing in a long shot that the traumatised Carson fumbled unconvincingly to the side. As the half-time whistle blew, England were booed off with the same ferocity their fans had deployed for the Croatian anthem. 

Having drifted into shit creek without paddles, McClaren immediately turned to Beckham to rescue the situation. To say the least, it was a gamble. Beckham was obviously unfit and one of his only two previous matches that November had been in a friendly against Hollywood United. The opposition that day had included the retired Frank Leboeuf, Superman star Brandon Routh, Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell and ‘goalkeeper’ Anthony LaPaglia, a 48-year old actor from the TV series Without a Trace. Such a team might have given England a game in 1950, but were hardly decent preparation for Croatia in 2007. With his managerial reputation 45 minutes from ruin, McClaren had little choice but to throw him in and hope he could somehow repeat his Greek heroics of 2001. 

Wright-Phillips was sacrificed, and Jermaine Defoe replaced Barry. When Beckham was introduced for his 99th cap before the second half kicked off, the crowd roared its approval. Venables, who had been in the stands for the first half, now joined McClaren on the bench. Behind the substitutes sat Rooney, Ashley Cole, Terry, Ferdinand and Owen, who had rocked up to Wembley for the post-match high-fives on the pitch when qualification was secured. They all looked on nervously to see if Golden Balls could save the Golden Generation again.

“He changed the game,” Bilić said of McClaren years later, a rare positive appraisal of the England manager that night. “Not necessarily playing-wise because I remember the game and we were still better in the second half. But he put in Beckham and Defoe and he changed the game.” Initially, the record hadn’t changed at all; Niko Kovač released Eduardo early in the second half, with Campbell visibly gasping while trying to catch him. Carson came out to smother the shot away for a corner. Then, out of nothing at all, England were awarded a shot at redemption. A poor cross from Joe Cole was collected easily by Pletikosa, but Šimunić had a slight tug at Defoe’s shirt as it came in. The linesman saw it and England had a penalty. Lampard, heartily booed by a section of the fans as he teed up the ball, sent Pletikosa the wrong way to bring England back into it.

Croatia were unflustered and nearly scored three times in five minutes. One heat-seeking through pass from Modrić to Olić went in behind Bridge, who threw out a despairing leg that looped the ball over Carson and onto the top of the bar and over. From the ensuing corner Olić planted a point blank header straight at Carson, who at least found some unwitting redemption when the ball walloped him in the chest and flew away to safety. To use the parlance of the game, Bridge was having one. He tried to intercept a Srna through pass and fell over the ball as he did so, presenting a one on one to Olić who could only shoot feebly at Carson. Another Croatian goal seemed not just likely but inevitable.

England’s most famous player had done little but give the ball away in the second half. “David Beckham, where are you now?” Motson had asked imploringly as England looked for the route back. In the 65th minute he appeared, released into space on the right wing by Richards. From his natural home Beckham produced the one piece of world-class play from any England player on the night – a laser-guided cross-cum-pass that dropped between Šimić and Ćorluka and onto the chest of Crouch, who then volleyed it past Pletikosa. “Crouch! Surely! Yes! Yes!” screamed Motson, climaxing through the octaves as the ball hit the net. “And the big man keeps up his phenomenal scoring record, but guess who supplied the cross – David Beckham!” Six years on from his free-kick at Old Trafford against Greece, Beckham appeared to have diverted England from meltdown again. All they had to do now was hold it at 2-2.

“You say, ‘Why don’t we keep the ball, take the ball of the Croatians,’” Bilić later reflected. “It’s impossible to take the ball off us, because we are, or we were, really good at that.” Given the way the evening had gone to that point, England weren’t suddenly going to put together rhythmic bouts of possession that would run the clock down. One of the enduring myths from that evening is that England kept naively piling forwards after they’d equalised. It’s a fallacy; they instead did what nearly all teams do when they have the result they need against superior opposition – cede possession and territory and shut up shop. During the celebratory chorus of “You’re Not Singing Anymore!” after Crouch’s goal, it went almost unnoticed that Eduardo had been replaced by Mladen Petrić. The Borussia Dortmund striker would have started the game but for a dodgy stomach in the build-up. Seven minutes after coming on, he made the whole of England sick.

After winning applause for some industrious work breaking up play in the right-back position, Beckham banged an aimless clearance up the line that handed possession back to Croatia. They worked the ball to Petrić, standing all alone in the inside-left position. His main weapon was known to be a murderous left-foot shot, yet no England player moved in to close down his space. With all the time in the world Petrić unloaded a brutal dipping drive that slashed through the rain, across the penalty area and past the flailing Carson. As it walloped into the far corner the ball knocked Carson’s towel out of the net where it had been hanging.

Cue panic. England took off Joe Cole and replaced him with Darren Bent. Their formation was now something akin to 4-1-2-3. Gerrard was tasked with being the sole player ahead of England’s catastrophic defence, yet his game had collapsed completely. He repeatedly coughed up the ball and was being schooled in midfield by Modrić, who was still orchestrating dangerous breaks for the Croatians. England, visibly desperate and lacking cohesion, could do little but hopefully lob the ball forwards. One half-chance came for Bent, a difficult half-volley he sliced over the bar. Beyond that there was nothing, other than the grim passage of time.

“Say something, Mark, say something,” begged Motson.

“I can’t,” mumbled Lawrenson. Even Jimmy Jokes couldn’t lighten the mood.

In the last minute of added time England won a corner. “Beckham to take it, please!” cried Motson. Beckham did and put it straight onto the head of the first defender. Croatia broke sensationally again, through the young substitute Ivan Rakitić and the irrepressible Modrić, but overelaborated when a fourth looked certain. It didn’t matter; the final whistle blew, and the England fans gave the players their full venom.

Ferdinand, Terry, Owen, Ashley Cole and Rooney all wandered onto the sodden pitch to console their teammates. They had just watched the Golden Generation’s reputation take a terminal blow and had been powerless to do anything about it. The players involved, particularly Carson, looked utterly shell-shocked. The only hope left was for a late equaliser by Andorra against Russia, who were playing out injury time. That it should come to this – the most celebrated group of English footballers in modern times, moping around in the pissing rain in their new £800 million national stadium, hoping to cadge a favour off a nation that would end the year ranked 175th in the world by Fifa. It didn’t come. Word came through that Russia had won and England had failed to qualify for the European Championship.

In the BBC studio Alan Hansen eviscerated their efforts. “If you’re being brutally honest, they got what they deserved,” he said. “Technically inferior. They were outthought, outplayed, outfought. Realistically Croatia could have won by six or seven. It’s definitely a low point in English history because the nature of the performance tonight, with so much at stake, was just abysmal.” As appraisals go, it was hard to deny. In the post-match interview McClaren was adamant that he wouldn’t quit, but it was futile. Less than 12 hours later he was sacked, bringing an end to the shortest reign of any full-time England manager to that point. The Daily Mail’s back page that morning provided McClaren with a tag he would never lose. For the apparent indignity of keeping the rain off him to see the horror of that night unfold with clear vision, he was dubbed, “A Wally with a Brolly.”

“I have to say it was as big a misjudgment as any I can remember from a national coach in front of a bitter, disillusioned crowd and a worldwide audience,” Venables later wrote in his autobiography. “If it is wet, you get soaked.” For his own part, Bilić had begun the evening with his head beneath a woolly hat to keep the cold off his ears and the rain off his hair. His team, of course, had won. McClaren woke up to the full wrath of the English press to go with his P45 the following day and the players weren’t spared either. The slightly oxymoronic criticism of being over-praised and underachieving hit them from all sides, including from the opposition. “England got just what they deserved because they were unbelievably arrogant,” Ćorluka said incredulously. “I don't know what Croatia have done to deserve being treated like this by the England players. I cannot believe they didn't recognise our ability.”

For his part, Bilić had words for the industry dishing out the critiques. “I read in the papers not one Croatian player would get in the England team,” he said. “I strongly advise you to wake up. There is no lack of skill in the England team, but they were vulnerable in defence.” In the family tree of the Golden Generation, the branches didn’t extend far out of the first eleven. The unfamiliarity between the outfield players in England’s second- to third-string defence was compounded by McClaren’s biggest gamble going so spectacularly wrong. “To concede three goals at Wembley is a huge disappointment,” he said afterwards. “I thought Carson was ready and I stick by that decision.” The back four had been chaotic; if only McClaren could have called on his captain Terry, who was approaching full fitness again. “England needed him badly,” said Terry’s new club manager Avram Grant. “It was a borderline decision.” Three days later, one of the self-appointed poster boys for the ‘Man Up’ generation trotted out to captain Chelsea at Derby County.

Ashley Cole was back in action too. Along with Terry, Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole they were barracked throughout, as England’s players skulked back into public view. Even Beckham, with his base now across the Atlantic, wasn’t spared the agony. He appeared on the final airing of Parkinson just under a month later, where the host dispensed with his usual sycophantic patter at the outset. “We must talk about the game,” began the outgoing Michael. “Er… it was awful, wasn’t it?” After the giggles from the audience, Beckham wheeled out the statesmanlike responses – must do better with such players, fans deserve more etc. It was a microcosm of the national debate. As the players came to terms with the stigma of being the first England team to fail to qualify for a tournament in 14 years, the ritual soul-searching of how to put it all right began.

The FA’s chief executive Brian Barwick was dispatched to throw a sack of cash at a high profile new manager, while his colleagues promised “a full root and branch examination of the whole England senior team set-up”. The same debates heard in 1973, 1983 and 1993 raged again, yet the media and public backlash against the players in 2007 was something quite different. Failure to win a tournament had been underwhelming, the defeat to Croatia was treated as a betrayal. Even Lord Mawhinney, the Chairman of the Football League, launched a two-footer. “I've been brought up over the last few years believing this was the golden generation,” he said, raising a few questions about his education in the process. “If this is the golden generation, the sooner we move away from the gold standard the better.”

The Croatian team were the ones going places. They were only the seventh team to beat England in a competitive international at Wembley. It was a landmark scalp to go alongside Croatia’s fledgling achievements with Bilić and his teammates in the nineties. “I said it then and it is still true,” Bilić the manager later reflected on that Wembley win. “No matter what job I did after that, that was the greatest moment of my career.” It had also revealed Modrić to be one of the most gifted midfielders in Europe. Six months later he surprisingly signed for Tottenham, before finding a more suitable home for his abilities at Real Madrid. When Croatia went to the European Championship in the summer of 2008, they looked like potential winners early on. Bilić ’s team won all three group games, including a victory over Germany, before falling to a shock quarter-final defeat to Turkey in a penalty shootout after they had taken the lead in the 119th minute.

Penalties had also decided the Champions League final just weeks before the Championship began. It was the first (and, so far, only) time that two English teams have been in the final, with Manchester United and Chelsea fielding nine England internationals between them in their starting line-ups. Liverpool and Steven Gerrard had also made it to the semi-final, further evidence for the Golden Generation’s critics that the players weren’t fronting up for England. Although Mawhinney wanted to abandon them, the new England manager Fabio Capello would do no such thing. Appointed for his jaw-dropping club CV and an aura that commanded respect, he quickly came to the same conclusion as the two managers before him: these were England’s best players and these were the ones that would play.

One shock exception to this rule was Owen. It was his 28th birthday on the day that Capello took charge and the candles were quickly blown out on his England career. With 40 international goals to his name he looked nailed on to break the England scoring record; he was given a token half against France in March 2008 and then dispensed with. Campbell’s age had already been counting against him at the end of McClaren’s reign and the Croatia debacle was his final England game. Injuries to Hargreaves and Beckham meant they never played at a major championship again, while injuries and internal squad politics sealed the same fate for Ferdinand.

The rest of the Golden Generation trudged on, with rapidly diminishing returns. England were stuffed 4-1 by Germany in the second round of their World Cup with Capello in South Africa, after a miserable group stage. Three turgid tournaments followed under Roy Hodgson, including England’s first exit at the group stage of a World Cup for 56 years and the second-round defeat to Iceland at the 2016 European Championship. One by one they began to retire from international football. The only international glory for any of that feted group was on an individual level. In 2008 Beckham became only the fifth England player to reach 100 caps. He was joined in the years that followed by Gerrard, Lampard and Ashley Cole. Rooney made it too, and then took the England scoring record from Bobby Charlton in 2015. When he confirmed his retirement from international football in August last year, the last of the Golden Generation was gone.

What went wrong with that group of players has kept English football in a state of torturous self-analysis ever since. Most of the ones who have retired have made their way into punditry and in amongst the constant chatter and noise about the Premier League the topic often comes up. Ferdinand, Lampard and Gerrard were quizzed on it recently by Jake Humphrey, a segment circulated with gusto by BT Sport as if it were the Rosetta Stone for deciphering the whole conundrum. It contained very little – the big reveal was said to be the undercurrent of club rivalries in England get-togethers, but it’s hardly astounding or unique that players at competing clubs might be a bit wary of each other in an international squad. Spain’s national players, for instance, have needed to put aside years of ingrained club rivalries and regional politics every time they’re called up.

Their platinum generation of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Fernando Torres and Sergio Ramos won three tournaments in a row from 2008-12, exerting a control from midfield that had the new generation of tactics- and stats-obsessed fans drooling. Ferdinand believes England’s failure to do the same was due to the mismanagement of players in their strongest area. “I don’t think we had a manager who was, maybe, I don’t know if these are the right words, brave enough to sort out our midfield,” he told Humphrey. “On paper we had the best midfield players in the world at the time. Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Beckham, Hargreaves, Carrick – you can go on and even below that you had more players. We had a depth of talent in there, ridiculous. We played a rigid 4-4-2. If you’ve got the best midfielders in the world, you try and get them in a diamond or whatever. And all of these guys could’ve been interchangeable within that system.”

It is the one area of the pitch in which England were flush when Crozier coined their millstone. They never had a quality goalkeeper and had one top player in each position in defence and attack, but the midfield was bursting with options. Ferdinand’s mention of his club colleague Carrick is telling; he was one of the few in the England squad with the ability to dictate the tempo of a game, yet started just nine competitive internationals in fifteen years as an England player. Another was Scholes, who had turned his back on England as early as 2004. At 29 and in the prime of an exceptional career, he had been shunted out to the wing by Eriksson to compensate for the lack of left-footed technicians across the country. Along with Hargreaves, Carrick and Scholes started in midfield for Manchester United on the night they bagged the Champions League title, just six months on from England’s defeat to Croatia.

Another reason for banishing Scholes to the wing had been to make room for Lampard. The wasted years pursuing a central axis between him and Gerrard have become a potent symbol of the Golden Generation’s failings and evidence for some that reputation took precedent over balancing the team properly. At the 2006 World Cup Eriksson tried playing them both in a three with Carrick and then Hargreaves, but it still didn’t get the best out of either. Barry had been tasked to free them up when McClaren needed them against Croatia. In the maelstrom of Wembley, the midfielders voted second and third in the 2005 Ballon d’Or were turned into cones as Modrić and his colleagues picked their way around them.

Hogging the ball is one way to win a game, but the Golden Generation’s most celebrated results and performances had been as a counter-attacking side. The 5-1 in Munich and the victory over Argentina in Sapporo in the 2002 World Cup were both won off the back foot; at Euro 2004 the same tactics were one ill-judged tackle from Emile Heskey away from sinking France. Against other nations though, expectations were a little different. Part of the reason that the defeat to Croatia burned so much is that England weren’t just beaten and knocked out, they were battered. English football’s psyche is conditioned to believe that there is a huge swathe of nations for whom that should not even be possible.

“Here's what I don't get,” wrote Adrian Chiles in the Guardian after the match, followed by a mercifully brief few sentences. “England, population 50 million, has 2.25 million registered players. Croatia, population 4.5 million, has fewer than 80,000. How come Croatia are anywhere close to England, let alone demonstrably better?” The same argument was wheeled out nine years later after England’s exit from Euro 2016. All the thigh-slapping banter about Iceland having a population smaller than Croydon and more volcanoes than professional footballers overlooked the more pertinent fact that they had beaten the Netherlands home and away to qualify.

The focus on populations and national resources in international football is a creepy cousin of the same metrics used to weigh up a nation’s capacity for total war, and can be rendered irrelevant by smaller countries that possess at least 11 good players. Obviously, it has never been the case that this yardstick is used as mitigation when the situation is reversed. Come the day that England slide to their first ever defeat to China, population size is unlikely to wash as an excuse.

That’s where the argument comes down to stature, or at least the perception of it by many of England’s followers. Like a lot of attitudes in this country, it seems rooted in an England that no longer exists and held by people whose Desert Island Discs would solely comprise Vera Lynn records. That air of inherent superiority and blissful ignorance of the world outside these islands was as evident in the reaction to Belo Horizonte in 1950 as it was at Wembley in November 2007. An England tournament exit should be drenched in nobility or underpinned by skullduggery, ideally to Argentina or the Germans. Into the valley of death ride the eleven English footballers. To be bumped out in the qualifiers, and served up so comprehensively on your own patch to boot as happened with Croatia, can still shake the roots of English culture as strongly as the United States did in 1950. By the time Croatia were officially admitted to Uefa, Beckham had already made his Manchester United debut.

“The mitigation that McClaren had a back four missing and was on his fifth and sixth choice central defenders does not wash,” Martin Samuel wrote in the Times the day after the defeat. “English football has to be better than this.” It regularly is not. Once a decade, the world of football reminds England just how small it is. Croatia’s victory at Wembley followed the pattern of Poland in 1973, Denmark in 1983 and Norway in 1993, where England were prevented from qualifying for a major tournament by a team assumed to be beneath their level.

It might be the last of its ilk. The number of competing teams at the European Championship rose to 24 in 2016, with the World Cup set to be expanded to house a whopping 48 entrants in 2026. With seeding based on world rankings and the play-offs as a safety net, it could be a long while before England are in jeopardy of failing to qualify for a tournament again. Their humiliation – i.e. losing to teams they assume they will beat for reasons of history – might then, as with Iceland, be reserved for the finals.

The immediate years that followed the pomp of the Golden Generation were certainly the lean following the fat. “We got to the quarter-finals of competitions and were that close on penalty shootouts,” Gerrard said in defence of the Golden Generation on the BT Sport debate in 2017. “I’m sure the fans would take that now.” Seven months on from Gerrard’s comments, the England fans were given something better; Gareth Southgate’s squad, largely unheralded beforehand, found a path through to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Waiting for them in Moscow were Croatia.

In the aftermath of England’s defeat, it seemed that November 2007 was fresh in the minds of some of Croatia’s senior players. Modrić, by then Croatia’s captain, used his post-game interview to take issue with English journalists and television pundits that he felt underestimated and disrespected his team and ahead of the semi-final. When the non-playing substitute Ćorluka strolled through the mixed zone later that night, he couldn’t resist either. “It’s not coming home!” he told a group of journalists while grinning.

It was a mild joke in reaction to the ubiquity of the song “Three Lions”, which had seen a resurgence among England’s fans as the team’s surprising run gathered momentum. Although expectation had increased around them as a result, England’s stay in Russia was notable for a humility and openness from the squad that the Golden Generation seemed to have lacked. In terms of raw talent, there is no comparison between the two. That Southgate’s squad were the one to finally clear the hurdle of the quarter-finals will only further dent the reputation of the other.

In the future the Golden Generation should be looked upon more favourably, maybe even seen as a high watermark. Yet the bitterness over their inability to land a major title remains. The expectation around them was something that had not been experienced by English international footballers since Alf Ramsey’s team went to Mexico in 1970 to defend their world title. Via the gentrification process started by Gazza’s tears in 1990 and tin-lidded at Euro 96, the England team had suddenly become fashionable again. A new audience had suddenly appeared from nowhere and the days of internationals taking place in front of tiny crowds in an empty, echoing Wembley were gone.

While the national stadium was being rebuilt between 2001 and 2007, England took to playing at club stadiums across the country. It connected the team with their fans in the provinces in a way not previously achieved. As the team blew up they played to a public that were steadily morphing into a transactional society, obsessed with celebrity and unloading their exaggerated rage via the internet. When they failed to win anything, culminating in that implosion in the rain against Croatia, the lash in the backlash was more vicious and came from a darker place than before. All that money, time and hope invested, and for what? Woe betide anyone who disappoints the habitual sense of entitlement. Just take a look around you.

One of the lingering criticisms of the Golden Generation is that it was the players themselves who were lost in a fog of self-regard. Although they hadn’t anointed themselves with that moniker like some pretentious prog rock act, distancing themselves from it didn’t become habitual until the quarter-final exits began to stack up. The first team players became close to bombproof, highlighted by the perseverance with the ill-fitting jigsaw that was England’s midfield. As they were mostly concentrated at a group of clubs that would come to be relentlessly plugged as ‘the Big Four’, their ensuing profile did create at least the perception of elevation between themselves and other players around the England squad. If Croatia exposed anything at Wembley, it was English football’s lack of depth beyond them. The tombstone of the Golden Generation has the date 21 November 2007 etched on it and five of its key figures weren’t even on the pitch to have a say in their fate. Not that it mattered to anyone in Croatia, and indeed why should it. At times that night they had been breathtakingly adroit.

“You didn’t lose the game tonight because of the tactics,” Bilić had said in the immediate post-match interview after his team had delivered the wake-up call. “You would lose the game even if it was with two up front from the start. And you didn’t score your goals because you had two players up front in the second half. No, no. We are simply a better team. I love your team and I admire your players, but tonight we were a much better team.” It usually is just that simple. Trying to get to the level the Croatians were at on that sopping night in 2007 and beyond has since become a national obsession in England.

As we live in an era of instant gratification, proposed solutions have often been geared to the quick fix. Gigabytes upon gigabytes of content have been generated about picking the right captain, instilling passion, apprentices scrubbing boots for the first team again, taking experimental squads to tournaments, winter breaks, dropping players who are assumed to be scarred by failure in the past and other peripherals that would make barely a scintilla of difference. Suggestions to get the patriotic juices surging in the players, as if that alone would bridge any chasm in technical ability with the opposition, read like the stag night wish-list of a Tory MP hellbent on a hard Brexit. Whether these wheezes are published online or have their merits duked out on Sunday Supplement, the log jam of short-term thinking will never lead to jam tomorrow.

There was only ever one option open to England if they wanted to see a vaulting improvement in their international results – take the long road and walk it. After years of delays St George’s Park opened in October 2012, a national football centre designed to be the focal point for England teams of all levels. Out of this came the quest for ‘England DNA’, the vision of clipboard-carrying elite performance specialists to get all of England’s teams and coaches on the same hymn sheet in terms of style, mentality and game nous. The project is saturated in the empty, middle-management rhetoric that most of us thought The Office had killed via parody fifteen years ago. But for all the embarrassing dogma around it, 2017 provided evidence that it might be working.

The youth of this country have been roundly demonised in the last decade (as in most decades), while austerity and the voting patterns of their elders combine to rob them of a future. Yet in 2017, England’s young footballers provided the country with a rare glimpse of a bright future. They won the Under-17 World Cup in India, the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea, the Under-19 European Championship in Georgia and the prestigious Under-20 Toulon Tournament in France. It was an unprecedented calendar year of age-level football success for any nation, anywhere. Manchester City’s Phil Foden, who won the Golden Ball as the best player at the Under-17 World Cup, picked up the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award in December. He was joined onstage by England’s other winning teams at the various levels. “Have we got a new Golden Generation coming through?” the presenter Gary Lineker excitably asked Rhian Brewster, the Liverpool forward who had been the top scorer in India.

There has been reticence elsewhere to bandy that term about, given the experience of the previous one. And though the potential is enormous, it is still youth-level football. The Darwinian nature of football means most of them will fall short of the highest level. “They need to know they have nowhere near made it,” cautioned Lampard in the aftermath of the Under-17 triumph. “Celebrate, enjoy it, go and Instagram it. Do what you have to do, enjoy the moment, but what comes now is the real hard work which is going up in steps, which are massive. I remember those steps. At 17 I thought I was a bit of a player. Got into the reserves – struggled. Got into the first team – struggled. Then you come to terms with it. There’s a lot of hard work.”

That reality is unlikely to dampen expectations. Given modern society, if England’s youth team winners don’t cash it in for the senior side in the 2020s then the criticism the original Golden Generation received might look tame in comparison. But, as Tony Soprano once said, you’re entitled to shit. England aren’t the only country with a prolonged drought at international level. Argentina haven’t won a major tournament for a quarter of a century, despite winning five Under-20 World Cups in the intervening time. Thirty years of hurt is a milestone recently reached by the Netherlands, despite having access to a de facto youth team at Ajax who had wrestled the Champions League title off AC Milan in 1995. Death and taxes, that’s all. Don’t ever look to football.

Graham Taylor was on to the lack of certainties in modern international football before most people in England. At the height of his suffering with the England job in the summer of 1993, he lost a crucial World Cup qualifier to Norway in Oslo. One week later, his moribund team were beaten by 2-0 by the United States in Boston. The wheel hadn’t turned far from Gaetjens and Belo Horizonte.

“Whether England gave the game to the world or not is now irrespective,” Taylor said at the time to the documentary crew of An Impossible Job. “It doesn’t belong to England, it’s a world game. It’s wrong for us to assume that everything we do in our country is right, that we should have our own way. There are 160-odd countries affiliated to Fifa and the game, whether we gave it to the world or not, belongs to them all.” As Croatia proved in 2007, the rest of the world will always be on hand to turn England’s upside down.