England’s Qualifying Campaigns – 2002 World Cup

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This week marks the 15th anniversary of England’s famous 5-1 win away to Germany in September 2001. To celebrate that, and also with England about to embark on their qualifying programme for the 2018 World Cup, we look back at England’s campaign to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. It was a qualifying process that brought the end of the old Wembley, the arrival of England’s first foreign manager and the most dramatic of climaxes…

As the 2000-01 season began, England were at their lowest point since they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. They had struggled to make it to Euro 2000 and at the finals they made a quick exit after losing two games out of three. Doubts were being cast about the extent of manager Kevin Keegan’s tactical astuteness, both defeats coming in games which they had led. With English hooligans again making headlines during the tournament and then England losing the vote to host the 2006 World Cup, there wasn’t much to smile about.

The one high point from the summer was a rare win over Germany, who flopped even more than England during Euro 2000. The sides would now be meeting twice more during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, in a group also containing Greece, Finland and Albania. It looked a straight fight for top spot between England and Germany, with the runner-up to face a play-off. It was widely considered to be one of Germany’s weakest teams, but England were hardly receiving rave reviews either. The side’s chances were not helped by the international retirement of Alan Shearer, while the exit gate also beckoned for some of the other older members of the set-up. Paul Ince would be called into the squad again but never win another cap, while Tony Adams would soon make his final appearance.

The end for King Kev

After the gloom of the summer there was a chink of light as England drew 1-1 away to World Cup and European Championship holders France in September thanks to a Michael Owen goal. But the acid test was the opening qualifier the following month. After 77 years the curtain was coming down on the old Wembley, England against Germany seeming an appropriate way to bid farewell to the Twin Towers.  But amid all the nostalgia about past matches at the stadium, Keegan was coming under increasing scrutiny. “If it doesn’t go too well at Euro 2000 it might not be me as coach in 2002,” he said the previous December. He was still there after the Euros, but his position looked more vulnerable as the ‘cheerleader rather than coach’ jibes grew. News leaked that Keegan was planning to deploy defender Gareth Southgate as a holding midfielder against Germany, in a surprise move that was met with scepticism.

Germany provided the opposition for the last match in front of the Twin Towers.

There were a couple of comparisons with the 1966 World Cup final: England played in red and the Germans, wearing white, took an early lead. But that was it. England failed to recover from Dietmar Hamann’s free-kick beating David Seaman after 13 minutes and lost 1-0. On a wet and miserable afternoon, Wembley’s farewell was a damp squib so far as England were concerned and a number of fans voiced their displeasure at the end as Keegan made his way towards the tunnel.

It was the final straw for the England manager, who decided to call it a day. Things became rather farcical as Keegan had to be locked in a toilet cubicle with the Football Association’s David Davies as he confirmed he would be stepping down – Davies revealing it was the only place he could think of to hold such an important conversation privately. For all the nostalgia over the old Wembley, a stadium with improved facilities was a necessity.

“I’m blaming nobody but myself. I wasn’t good enough,” admitted Keegan, who was refreshingly honest about his shortcomings as a manager. But FA chief executive Adam Crozier described the timing of the resignation as “not ideal”, something of an understatement given England faced a tricky away qualifier in Finland four days later. As with after Glenn Hoddle’s sudden departure in February 1999, Howard Wilkinson would step into the breach for one match.

The match was controversially only being shown live on pay-per-view television in the UK and anyone who paid up to £10 for the privilege would have felt short changed by what they saw from England. They again struggled to make inroads as they drew 0-0, although Ray Parlour’s late effort appeared to cross the line without being given. But the performance had won few plaudits. It was still early days but England were the only side in the group yet to win after Albania surprisingly defeated Greece. David Lacey in The Guardian wrote: “The chances of England qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in the Far East are still no more than a dim light on the horizon. They are now two points behind Albania and Greece at the bottom of their group. As poor starts go this is the pits.”

Sven arrives 

It was too early to panic, but England now faced a five-month wait until the next qualifier to get their first win. In the meantime there was the question of who would become England’s new boss. With a significant lack of top English managers emerging, the FA effectively were left with considering reappointing a former boss or bringing in the national team’s first foreign manager.

A nostalgic return for Sir Bobby Robson on a short-term basis was ruled out by Newcastle United, as it became increasingly clear who the favoured candidate was. Sven-Göran Eriksson was being courted by the FA, but the situation was complicated by the Swede being under contract with Lazio for the rest of the season. Eventually in late October it was announced Eriksson would take over the following summer, although the FA expressed hope he would manage the side before then. In the meantime Peter Taylor and Steve McClaren looked after the team for a friendly in Italy, Eriksson watching on as David Beckham captained the side for the first time in a 1-0 defeat.

In January the FA got the news they wanted as Eriksson prematurely left Lazio and was free to start his work with England. The appointment of a foreigner was not met with universal approval. A John Bull figure would follow Eriksson around in protest at his appointment, while journalist Jeff Powell expressed his vehement opposition in The Daily Mail. “We sell our birthright down the fjord to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer throwers who spend half their year living in total darkness,” he infamously wrote. “There were a lot of errors in that sentence,” replied Eriksson in his autobiography, branding Powell – without naming him – an “idiotic journalist”. By his standards it was outspoken stuff.

If Eriksson was bothered about silencing the critics then he went about it the right way. His first game brought an encouraging 3-0 friendly win over Spain at Villa Park, as England began their six-years ‘on the road’ without a proper home. But the crucial test was the next qualifier against Finland on March 24 at Anfield. They had to come from behind to achieve it but goals from Michael Owen and Beckham earned a 2-1 win to at last get a victory in the group.

Ashley Cole makes his England debut in Albania.

Four days later they had two after winning 3-1 in Albania. It wasn’t a vintage England display but the victory was vital, a flurry of late goals including Andrew Cole’s only strike for his country seeing them through. Cole’s namesake Ashley made his senior international debut at left-back, impressing but being struck by a missile for his troubles.

Eriksson retained his 100% record in May when England beat Mexico 4-0 in a friendly at Pride Park, Derby. Belief seemed to have returned to the side and that was clear as they safely negotiated a potentially tricky qualifier away to Greece to end the season. Paul Scholes broke the deadlock in the second half, with a trademark David Beckham goal securing the 2-0 win. With five games gone England had 10 points on the board and they were chasing Germany. The qualifier in Munich on September 1 was looking increasingly decisive.

THAT night in Munich

A 2-0 friendly defeat by the Netherlands at White Hart Lane in August ended Eriksson’s perfect start, but it would be quickly forgotten if the Three Lions could triumph in Munich. Eriksson was getting an uncomfortable first insight into Anglo-German rivalry as he read newspapers ahead of the game. “Everything that was written alluded to the war. I did not understand it. To me it was a game like any other,” he wrote in his autobiography.

He may have been bemused by how much the match meant to the English nation (dismissing it as “a one-sided rivalry” in his book), but he would find himself hailed as a hero for what happened over the course of 90 minutes. Fielding a starting XI containing players only from the Premier League’s top four in 2000-01 of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Leeds United, England enjoyed a never-to-be-forgotten night that sent the country into raptures.

Michae Owen scores for England against Germany.

And yet it began with Carsten Jancker putting the Germans ahead, with Sebastian Deisler squandering a great chance to restore the lead after Owen had equalised. The crucial moment came when Steven Gerrard drove England ahead on the stroke of half-time. From then on it was all England, Owen scoring twice more to complete his hat-trick. “This is getting better and better and better,” proclaimed BBC commentator John Motson, with the drama not finished yet. An excellent ball from Scholes allowed Emile Heskey to make it 5-1 with 16 minutes left. It was ‘pinch me’ stuff, England humiliating their old nemesis. Few England victories over the years have been as widely celebrated as this one, a result that was particularly significant as the Germans had previously only lost one World Cup qualifying match.

MIchael Owen celebrates as England run riot against Germany.

England had a largely young side, several of whom would be part of the ‘golden generation’ set-up in the ensuing years, and there now seemed much to get excited about. Eriksson was being hailed as a hero, his success so far having silenced most who criticised his appointment. ‘Sven-sational’ was the sort of headline gracing just about tabloid. His sex life wasn’t filling column inches as much as in the ensuing years, his tactics weren’t being questioned and nor was too much criticism flying around over his reported salary after the win over Germany like it later would. This was really as good as it got, the man being hailed as a saviour of the England team. It certainly wouldn’t always be like this.

Now it looked just a formality that England would get the two wins needed against Albania and Greece to ensure qualification. The nation was in party mood as Albania arrived at St James’ Park four days after the Germany game, but it threatened to be an anti-climax. England had to wait until the 44th minute to go ahead through Owen, with the killer second not arriving until the closing minutes from Robbie Fowler. But the 2-0 win meant England topped the table with one game to play. If they matched Germany’s result at home to Finland when Greece came to Old Trafford then they were through.

Albania were England’s first opponents after thrashing Germany.

In the month between England beating Albania and welcoming Greece to Old Trafford, the world was rocked by the events of September 11 which put football firmly into perspective. But there was still plenty of attention given to the decisive qualifier in the build-up to it, the BBC starting its live programme two hours before kick-off. It wasn’t quite win or bust, as the runners-up would have a second chance in the play-offs. In a curious move, the play-off draw was made some weeks before the groups concluded – England knowing they would have a fairly favourable tie with Belarus or Ukraine if they slipped up. But there were no guarantees they would defeat them. A win over Greece would make things far more straightforward.

Becks to the rescue

England were without Owen and Seaman against Greece, as Fowler and Nigel Martyn deputised. Eriksson’s side were still widely expected to prevail, but they toiled in the October sunshine. The match provided the first hints of some of Eriksson’s shortcomings, as well as the improvements Greece were making under Otto Rehhagel that would lead to them sensationally winning Euro 2004. They were to stun Old Trafford by taking a half-time lead, with England not striking back until the 67th minute. Seconds after coming on, veteran Teddy Sheringham headed England level. That should have been the springboard for England to go on and get the victory, but two minutes later the Greeks were back in front.

It was now starting to look increasingly ominous for England, whose fans were keeping tabs on events in Gelsenkirchen. Earlier in the campaign Finland had drawn with Germany and now they were doing so again. If they could keep it goalless, then an English equaliser would be enough to send Eriksson’s side through. The Finns duly did their bit, but where would England’s goal come from?


David Beckham celebrates saving England against Greece.

It had been a frustrating afternoon for captain Beckham, who had worked tirelessly but his free-kicks had failed to trouble the Greek net. But deep in stoppage time England won another free-kick outside the area. Beckham at last curled it brilliantly into the net and Old Trafford erupted. The anticipated ‘Greek tragedy for England’ headlines could be spiked and Eriksson had led England into the finals. Paul Wilson wrote in The Guardian: “This was not a great England performance but it was a display of great character, and it was fitting that David Beckham should secure the all-important point in the third minute of stoppage time. At times the captain was almost playing Greece on his own, and no one worked harder in twice bringing England back from a goal down.”

“Even I threw my arms up in the air and jumped up off the bench,” wrote Eriksson, almost appearing to mock his usual lack of animation on the touchline. But this was a goal worth celebrating – it had come down to virtually the final kick and England had done it. They’d done it the hard way and also had Finland to thank for getting them out of jail. But they had made it all the same. German celebrations were curtailed as news broke of England’s goal, although they would beat Ukraine in the play-offs and go on to reach the final as England went out to Brazil in the quarter-finals. But the qualifying campaign had for once seen England come out on top, with that unbelievable night in Munich being the standout result.

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