15 years after a 5-1 win over Germany in Munich, James Dutton looks back at the greatest result in England’s recent history and the lessons that have not been learned…
‘It’s Neville to Campbell, Campbell to Rio,
Rio to Scholesy, Scholesy-Gerrard,
Gerrard to Beckham, Beckham to Heskey,
Heskey to Owen, it’s a goal, 5-1!’
It is perhaps a sign of the times that Ant and Dec soundtracked the greatest moment of the English football team in the last 15 years. Ignoring the fact the lyrics are incorrect – Michael Owen did not score the fifth goal – ‘We’re on the Ball’ reflected the fresh optimism that had been injected into the national side at the start of the Sven-Goran Eriksson era.
It was England’s official song as they travelled half-way across the world to Japan and South Korea for the 2002 World Cup, a journey that had looked a remote fantasy when Kevin Keegan resigned in the Wembley toilets after a 1-0 defeat to the Germans in October 2000.
The last game at the old home of English football ushered in a new era that was further emboldened by the appointment of England’s first ever foreign coach. A trophy-laden spell in Serie A had reached its pinnacle in 2000 as Lazio won the league and cup double, exploits that caught the attentions of the bigwigs at the FA but the scepticism of the vast majority of the English press.
England had followed up that defeat at a rain-sodden Wembley with a dire stalemate in Finland four days later to leave them with one point from six. They would return to competitive action at Anfield five months later, the beginning of six years on the road for the national side as the Twin Towers made way for the arch at Wembley.
Having gone behind in Liverpool, Michael Owen and David Beckham fired back as England claimed their first win in Group 9 of qualification. Victories followed over Albania and Greece before Munich’s grand old Olympiastadion beckoned, with England six points behind Germany in the table but with a game in hand.
After the chaos of Keegan’s reign, which had been given a bizarre reprieve despite England’s woeful group stage exit at Euro 2000, Eirksson had restored pride in the national side. The Swede had won his first five games in charge, including two commanding friendly wins over Spain and Mexico, before a chastening 2-0 defeat against the Netherlands at White Hart Lane in August.
It was under that cloud that England arrived in Germany, but with a settled eleven comprised from the top four clubs in the country at the time. Beckham and club-mates Gary Neville and Paul Scholes were integral figures in Manchester United’s third successive Premiership title. Owen, Steven Gerrard, Nick Barmby and Emile Heskey had achieved an historic club treble at Liverpool while David Seaman, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole were to provide the bedrock of Arsenal’s return to the top of English football that season.
Rio Ferdinand would become the most expensive defender in world football in just under a year, having been a key component of Leeds United’s surge to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Though goalkeeper Seaman was pushing 40, each outfield player was under 30 and most were approaching their prime. Heskey and Owen had formed a formidable strike partnership at Liverpool, with the latter becoming European Footballer of the Year.
A 21-year-old Gerrard had been voted Young Player of the Year and in his more reserved formative years on the pitch he provided the ideal coil for Scholes to wreck havoc further up the pitch. Kieron Dyer had emerged as an exciting talent on the wing under Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle United, a side on the verge of Champions League qualification, and was ready to take Barmby’s place in the starting line-up.
But in Munich that evening, England could not afford to get carried away with qualification for Japan and South Korea still someway down the line. There was promise in this young England side, but as ever there were no guarantees. And when Carsten Jancker pounced on Oliver Neuville’s knockdown ahead of a sleeping England defence to poke the ball beyond the flapping hands of Seaman, the fears of the traveling supporters resurfaced. Six minutes in and the natural order had been restored, with young midfielder Michael Ballack, who would later that season lead Bayer Leverkusen to an unlikely Champions League final appearance, running the strings.
Six minutes in and the play-offs looked inevitable for Eriksson and Co, but the deficit was cut barely six minutes later. If the source was predictable, a precise finish from Owen, its creation was not. A hooked ball from the left foot of Gerrard on the Germany byline was nodded back into the penalty area by Neville. The home defence rushed out to play the offside trap, but timed it appallingly, leaving three England players onside and in on goal. Barmby knocked the ball back ahead of a despairing Oliver Khan and Owen knocked into an empty net.
A soft equaliser to give away from Germany, and one that had even the notoriously dispassionate Eriksson could not hide his delight with. Though England had quickly fought back into the game, the narrative that they then blew the Germans away does not quite fit. Sebastian Diesler scuffed a shot wide from 10 yards out in acres of space and Seaman pulled off a spectacular save down to his right to deny Jancker a second.
But with the set-piece expertise of Beckham, England were always in the game. Like the equaliser, the goal that put them ahead on the stroke of half-time started with a curling delivery from his right boot. The free-kick was cleared, the resulting cross headed away, but only for Gerrard to chest the ball down and unleash a vicious low drive from 25 yards; it would become his forte over the years.
Three minutes after half-time the imperious Khan let a straight-forward shot from Owen beat his outstretched left-hand at his near post. Just under 20 minutes later he had no chance as the Liverpool striker raced onto a perfectly timed through-ball from Gerrard to lift the ball over the ‘keeper and complete his hat-trick. The execution was stunning, the work from Gerrard to win the ball back and instantly launch a counter attack even better.
The fourth goal prompted a mass exodus as home supporters flooded to the exits in their droves. Eight minutes later their humiliation was complete as England ripped through Germany’s vacant midfield. Ferdinand, to Scholes, to Beckham, back to Scholes and into Heskey. As Martin Tyler roars ‘It’s five!’, the Liverpool striker follows his famous DJ celebration with a golf putt.
‘This is an absolute battering,’ purred Andy Gray on co-commentary.
It was a goal that had the hallmarks of all that was so good about that England side. Eager to win the ball back, ruthless in exploiting space, dynamic in its running and calm in its decision-making. It was revenge that had been a long-time in the making, spanning the quarter-final exit at the World Cup in 1970 through Italia 90 and Euro 96.
England topped the group in dramatic circumstances – a story for another day – and assured themselves automatic qualification for the World Cup on goal-difference. However England’s revenge for three consecutive knock-out tournament defeats to the old enemy proved hollow. It says so much about the pedigree of the two nations that England’s greatest victory proved ultimately meaningless.
Germany, undergoing a thorough root-and-branch reform following their failure at Euro 2000 reached the World Cup final despite that embarrassment in front of their own supporters. It is a testament to their footballing culture that the revolution was not hastily chucked out. After failing again at Euro 2004 they have reached at least the semi-final stage of the six successive tournaments since.
As top seeds tumbled in one of the most unpredictable tournaments in recent memory, England made their way to the quarter-finals in 2002 in style after dispatching Denmark 3-0 in the last 16. Injury, though, had already shorn Eriksson of several of his first eleven including Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard and Kieron Dyer. A half-fit Beckham had been rushed back to action after breaking his metatarsal in April – a saga that had enthralled that nation – and he was distinctly off the pace in the far east.
Despite that redemptive goal against Argentina in the group-stage he was anonymous as England toiled in the heat against Brazil in Shizuoka. Deep into first-half stoppage-time with his side a goal to the good, Beckham jumped over a challenge from future team-mate Roberto Carlos deep in the opposition’s half. Roque Junior threaded the loose ball through to Ronaldinho, who skipped past Paul Scholes and set up Rivaldo for the equaliser.
As England failed to trouble 10-man Brazil in the second-half the renaissance of the Sven era came to an abrupt end. The defining image of the Swede sat in the dugout, failing to rally his players, stuck in the national media. The warped narrative that a manager must show his emotions and lead from the front took hold. The honeymoon period was over, and yet his achievement of reaching three consecutive quarter-finals is the best record of any England manager in recent times.
Within that narrow-minded prism England have lurched from one promising side to another, borrowing flavour of the month ideas from across the continent every four years. The second-half in Munich that crystallised the greatest qualities of English football have largely fallen by the wayside. Landmark results since have been painfully thin on the ground for a nation starved not of hope, but of belief.
It is apt that English football would spend 15 years eulogising one result, and yet overlook the performance that made it a reality.
Germany XI: Khan, Rehmer, Worns (Asamoah 45), Linke, Nowotny, Bohme, Hamann, Ballack (Klose 65), Deisler, Neuville (Kehl 78), Jancker
Goals: Jancker 6
England XI: Seaman, Neville, Ferdinand, Campbell, Cole, Beckham, Gerrard (Hargreaves 78), Scholes (Carragher 83), Barmby (McManaman 64), Heskey, Owen
Goals: Owen 12, 48, 66, Gerrard 45, Heskey 74