The Flashback: When howlers and bad decisions saw Croatia ruin England careers

As England prepare to take on Croatia on Wednesday night, the minds of long-suffering Three Lions fans will no doubt cast back to 2006 and 2007.

When England’s Golden Generation were supposed to be one of the most feared international teams in the world, backing up their club form with performances in the colours of their country, Steve McClaren presided over one of the worst periods in English football’s recent history.

Group E was a tight qualifying group, but it was also one which England should have made light work of. Croatia and Russia were the two danger sides: two teams who regularly appear at international tournaments, but also two teams the Three Lions should have had no problems besting.

And yet….

After a disappointing 2-0 defeat in Zagreb in the first real test of the group, McClaren’s side were on the back foot. An Eduardo header put them behind midway through the second half, but disaster well and truly struck just eight minutes later when Paul Robinson missed his kick when trying to blast a backpass to safety, only to see the ball trickle over his foot and into the net.

It will forever go down as an own goal from Gary Neville, but this group and England’s humiliating elimination from it will be remembered for two goalkeeping howlers against Croatia. Paul Robinson may have been on the wrong end of a career defining moment in Zagreb, but worse was yet to come.

Scott Carson will forever be remembered for his mistake in the return game against Slaven Bilic’s Croats, too. Indeed, he may even be blamed for England’s entire elimination – although the Three Lions should still have qualified despite his blunder. But his inclusion in the starting XI was the death knell for Robinson, whose mistakes for England even after that night in Zagreb saw him dropped, never play for his country again.

On to the game, though, and England only needed a win to be secure of qualification – though a point would have likely done the job unless Russia beat Andorra by eight clear goals.

With Carson thrown into the breach, and just eight minutes on the clock, a speculative Niko Kranjcar shot from distance was fumbled into his own net by the Liverpool keeper who was on loan at Aston Villa, as the ball bounced off the wet surface at a rainy Wembley and into the roof of the net.

Six minutes later, Ivica Olic rounded Carson again to make it 2-0 and England were shellshocked – not least their manager, who stood in the technical area under an umbrella, unable to comprehend just what was taking place before his very eyes. In his mind, he must have know that the impending humiliation would not just come from defeat, but from the failure to even make the qualification play-offs for the European Championships from what everyone would have considered an ‘easy’ group – even if no one considered Croatia ‘easy’ opponents, at the very least a play-off spot should have been secured.

Humiliation, too, for the wider English footballing family. Manchester United and Liverpool had been champions of Europe within the previous decade. The Anfield club were beaten finalists in that competition just months earlier. Arsenal, too, had made it all the way to the final of Europe’s top club competition a year and a half before this game. In the two years to come, Manchester United and Chelsea would get to finals again, too.

Steve McClaren stands under an umbrella as England lose to Croatia in 2007

In the UEFA Cup, Middlesbrough had even made the final – it’s this fact that undoubtedly saw McClaren appointed England manager in the first place.

This was a country and a league that should’ve been on top of the world, yet who were dumped out before the competition even got underway. But one look at the starting lineup that night in November 2007 shows you that this was no ‘Golden Generation’ side.

Ahead of Carson was a back four comprised of Micah Richards, Sol Campbell, Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge. Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips played on the flanks. Peter Crouch was the lone figure up front. The only part of the team that looks like it should have been winning competitions was the midfield – with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard crowbarred into the same team alongside Gareth Barry, there to provide some sort of holding support in an awkwardly fitting 4-3-3.

When they come to reel off the names of England’s best footballers who scandalously missed out on Euro 2008, few of them will match with the above list.

And yet McClaren’s hodge-podge side – cobbled-together as it was with safety pins and a length of string – did manage to come back. Miraculously, two half-time substitutions seemed to work: Jermain Defoe, who was brought down for a penalty (duly converted by Frank Lampard) and David Beckham, who provided the cross for Peter Crouch’s chest and finish equalised for England.

Peter Crouch celebrates scoring against Croatia with Joe Cole and Frank Lampard

McClaren engineered a comeback, he masterminded it.

With Andorra losing only 1-0 to Russia with just ten minutes to go, England were through: through on goal difference barring a miracle somewhere in the deepest, darkest Pyrenees. And it was all down to Steve McClaren’s half-time intervention – Scott Carson the lucky boy dug out of a hole by his teammates as England earned themselves a reprieve and a chance to qualify through the back door. From there, they’d combine the very best components of the Premier League’s European dominance to win Euro 2008 ahead of a Spain side who hadn’t quite morphed into the all-conquering Pep Guardiola-fuelled force just yet.

If you know your history, you’ll have spotted the mistake above.

Unfortunately, McClaren didn’t. His two half time subs were designed to add more attacking flair to a team lacking in ideas. Surely, then, with 25 minutes still on the clock, that needed to be balanced out as soon as the equaliser arrived.

Instead, no changes were made, and an England team who thought they’d rescued their Euro dream were forced to hang on for a quarter of a game running on adrenaline. It was a recipe for disaster, and when Mladen Petric was given space just outside the England penalty area he took another speculative sho. Once again, Carson was beaten. England were beaten. England were out.

The horror of that night amongst England fans masks what should have been a thrilling comeback through adversity to give their side a second chance. Instead, the reputations of a former Middlesbrough manager and a goalkeeper owned by a club from Liverpool were ruined. But thanks to that night, England should never underestimate Croatia.