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England’s Euro 2000 – Millennium Misery

In the latest of our recollections on England at past European Championships, we turn the spotlight on Euro 2000. The competition co-hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands is widely remembered as one of the most entertaining major tournaments in modern times – but not one in which England could be proud of what they achieved. And once more the nation looked on in shame as the hooligans stuck…

As previously recalled, England had endured a turbulent qualifying campaign for Euro 2000 and almost contrived to throw away a 2-0 first-leg lead when they hosted Scotland in the return play-off match at Wembley. But they were at least heading to the Low Countries for the finals and in December 1999 the draw took place just days after the 2002 World Cup qualifying draw was held. That had placed England in the same group as Germany and, almost inevitably, they were now also drawn together at Euro 2000. With the nations also competing for the right to host World Cup 2006 – with the vote to take place shortly after the European Championship concluded – there was going to be no shortage of Anglo-German rivalry on show in the coming months.

“It was predictable. Call it fate,” said English football legend Sir Bobby Charlton after the draw was made. “I think we’ll beat them in all three: the World Cup bid, the World Cup qualifiers and here (Euro 2000). If we do I’ll be a very happy man.” But even though this was not a vintage German side, few would totally share Charlton’s optimism. England hadn’t beaten the Germans during a major tournament since 1966 and there were clear signs they weren’t likely to be selected as 2006 World Cup hosts either.

A tough group

England were among the lowest seeds for Euro 2000 and they were placed in a tough-looking group. As well as Germany, they would have to play Portugal and Romania. The Portuguese were appearing at only their second major tournament since 1986 but boasted a ‘golden generation’ of players such as Luis Fugo who could pose a real threat, while Romania had beaten England during the 1998 World Cup. Kevin Keegan, who took over as England manager from Glenn Hoddle during the qualifying campaign, knew it wasn’t the ideal draw but tried to stay positive. “My first thought was that it was a tough draw but all groups are tough,” he said.

The next five months brought just one match, a goalless friendly against Argentina at Wembley. Keegan focused on a series of warm-up matches directly before the tournament. In the space of a week they drew with Brazil and beat Ukraine at Wembley, before winning away to Malta. The Ukraine match saw Steven Gerrard win his first England cap and the Liverpool midfielder was picked for the Euro 2000 squad along with fellow internationally inexperienced youngsters Gareth Barry (Aston Villa) and Richard Wright (Ipswich Town).

But England’s party was perhaps defined more by those at the other end of the age scale. Striker and captain Alan Shearer had announced he would be retiring from international football after the finals, while midfielder Paul Ince would never be capped again after England returned home. Defender Tony Adams would not be picked again after the year 2000 concluded and nor would Dennis Wise, who featured prominently for England at the finals.

Reality bites

England’s first match was against the Portuguese in Eindhoven and it could barely have begun better, Paul Scholes and Steve McManaman giving them a 2-0 lead inside 18 minutes as both converted excellent David Beckham crosses. So far, so good. Then reality bit. Figo scored an excellent long range shot after receiving the ball on the halfway line, although he was afforded too much space by the English players to run and shoot. By half-time the scores were level as Joao Pinto headed past David Seaman and it was clear the way the contest was heading.

On the hour mark, Nuno Gomes duly completed the comeback by putting Portugal 3-2 up. Almost 30 years to the day of England’s infamous 3-2 loss to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup, England had again been beaten in a major tournament after leading 2-0. The night would end with Beckham raising his middle finger at a section of England followers, after a match when he had come in for abuse from a small minority. “I just couldn’t believe it. I was ashamed,” said Keegan of the abuse handed out, as he defended the player.

Paul Scholes gives England an early lead against Portugal.

It has been a captivating match for the neutral. But for England fans it was a night of disappointment. If England’s start had embodied Keegan’s passion and desire, their collapse had raised serious question marks about the manager’s tactics and belief in playing 4-4-2 as they looked over-run in midfield . “We took a blow but we will come back from it,” vowed Keegan, as England now prepared for a Saturday night showdown with Germany in the Belgian city of Charleroi. The Germans had looked unimpressive in their opening 1-1 draw with Romania and this really did represent a golden opportunity for England to beat them.

Hooligans strike again

Soon things became far more concerning for the nation than simply whether England could beat Germany. Pre-tournament fears about hooliganism were realised as scores of England followers were arrested as violence flared in Brussels and Charleori in the build-up to the clash with Germany. Coming just weeks after violent scenes in Copenhagen when Arsenal met Galatasaray in the UEFA Cup final, it was another blow for English football and now UEFA considered what action to take. During the Euros of 1980, 1988 and 1992, England had crashed out in the group stage and their hooligans had brought shame on the nation. It seemed history was repeating itself.

Alan Shearer scores the winner for England against Germany.

Unusually for a group stage game, the match was live on both the BBC and ITV as almost 18 million tuned in back home. “Are you sitting comfortably? Neither am I,” said ITV’s Clive Tyldesley as he began his commentary. If four years earlier England and Germany had produced one of the best games of Euro ’96, now they were serving up a candidate for the worst during Euro 2000. But few England fans were complaining about the lack of quality on show when Shearer headed in Beckham’s free-kick early in the second half to give them the lead. For once good fortune seemed to be on England’s side against the Germans as their opponents squandered the chance to level and Keegan’s men grabbed a joyous victory. Now they needed just a draw against Romania, again in Charleroi, to progress.

But the joy of victory was quickly soured, as the following day UEFA threatened to expel England from Euro 2000 if there was further trouble. It was a stark warning and meant that, even if England got the result they needed against Romania, they could be coming home. The government came under fire for not having done more to stop potential troublemakers travelling to the Low Countries and something was clearly going to have to be done to prevent similar violent scenes in the future.

It was though questioned if the punishment fitted the crime. Kevin Miles, of the Football Supporters Federation, said: “While all genuine supporters deplore any trouble caused by anyone following the English team, UEFA’s proposal would seem to punish the innocent to an extent that even the Belgian police haven’t managed.” All-round it was a depressing state of affairs.

Paying the penalty

England suffered a blow shortly before kick-off against Romania when Seaman was injured and had to be replaced by Nigel Martyn. Cristian Chivu’s cross-cum shot went in off the post to give Romania the lead, although by half-time England led 2-1 thanks to Shearer (penalty) and Michael Owen – the latter scoring from an acute angle in the final seconds of the half. England were fortunate to be ahead, but they simply had to see out the last 45 minutes without conceding twice and they would go through.

It was to be a frustrating tournament for Kevin Keegan.

Three minutes into the second half, the task looked less simple as Martyn punched into the path of Dorinel Munteanu and the Romanian player took advantage to equalise. It had been an avoidable goal to concede and England now faced more than 40 minutes of trying to see the game out. They came within three minutes of doing so. With England seemingly on course for the point they needed but hadn’t particularly warranted, Phil Neville lunged in on Viorel Moldovan in the area.

Four years later referee Urs Meier would be a tabloid target after England exited Euro 2004, but there were few complaints over his decision to award Romania the late penalty at Euro 2000. Substitute Ioan Ganea kept his nerve to score and put Romania through. It was the second successive tournament Romania had beaten England in the dying moments, this time administering a fatal blow.

Romania would go on to face Italy in the quarter-finals, as England prepared to fly home. The competition would continue perfectly well without them, with matches such as Spain’s dramatic 4-3 win over Yugoslavia helping make it one of the best tournaments in modern times. England had led in all three games yet emerged with two defeats, as stinging criticism was directed towards the team and the tactics used by Keegan – who admitted playing 4-4-2 “didn’t work”.

“They came, they swore, they were conquered,” wrote Henry Winter of England’s tournament in The Telegraph, adding: “With some honourable exceptions, like Martin Keown, England’s most impressive player, and the thousands of decent fans whose good behaviour was a refreshing counterpoint to those hundreds who offended their friendly hosts, England have been an embarrassment at Euro 2000. It is one thing falling at the first hurdle, but it is quite another tripping up without even a glimmer of glitz.”

Phil Neville concedes the last-gasp penalty against Romania.

The only crumbs of comfort for England were they had at last beaten Germany and finished above them in the group, the holders crashing out with a mere point to their name. But even that relative success couldn’t be enjoyed for long. On July 6 the vote took place to determine the host nation for the 2006 World Cup. Germany pipped South Africa to the prize, with England a distant third. It summed up England’s summer, having also been nowhere near winning Euro 2000.

And in October the Germans were the last visitors to Wembley for a World Cup qualifier, duly winning 1-0. It marked the final straw for Keegan, who quit shortly after the final whistle. The man’s passion was unquestioned, but unfortunately his tactical shortcomings had been exposed in recent months – particularly during Euro 2000.

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Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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