Enough words have written about England’s not-so-golden ‘Golden Generation’ already.
But we’re torturing ourselves once more because the frustration still keeps us awake during the long and lonely winter nights.
Back in 2004, our defence were solid and, with a young Wayne Rooney partnering the ever-sharp Michael Owen, we didn’t have a problem up top.
The problem area was midfield, which is curious considering we pretty much had ALL THE BEST MIDFIELDERS IN THE WORLD!
Before we delve into why it didn’t work, let’s take a look at the credentials of our protagonists…
England’s captain was the best crosser and free-kick taker in the world at the time.
Okay, second best after Juninho Pernambucano.
Beckham wouldn’t skin his man down the outside that often but he didn’t need to; his delivery did all the work.
A talismanic figure who inspired those around him.
The Liverpudlian box-to-box dynamo that would see a game that needs winning and grab it by the scruff of the neck.
His long-range shooting was a handy bonus but back in 2004 his main attribute was his omnipresence.
“Gerrard wins the ball back, plays a long pass to Gerrard, who whips in a cross for Gerrard at the near post…”
Name a better goalscoring midfield… we dare you.
His trademark late arrival in the box often coincided with the final ball and more often than not that meant goal time.
A forward’s knack for scoring with a midfielder’s sense of positioning; a combination that served him well in over 1000 career games.
Arguably the best of the lot.
Xavi and Andres Iniesta both asked to swap shirts with Scholes after a game between Barcelona and Man United in 2008 — that’s all you need to know about his reputation among his peers.
He couldn’t tackle to save his life but his passing, shooting and heading were all of the highest standard.
How about the rest?
The other four midfielders in the squad consisted of Class of 92 member Nicky Butt, consistent performer Owen Hargreaves, the immensely talented Joe Cole and the mercurial Kieron Dyer.
Cole in particular represented a good option in reserve given that the following season he starred for a record-breaking Chelsea team.
Gerrard once proclaimed ‘anything Messi can do, Joe Cole can do as well, if not better’ which is obviously ludicrous but says a lot about how Cole was regarded during his peak.
Why didn’t it work?
First and foremost we have to address the fact that Scholes was made to play as a left-winger.
Shifting the ginger maestro wide negated all his best qualities and limited how much he could dictate the game’s tempo.
Only years later did it become apparent that Scholes should have been the first name on the team sheet in centre-midfield.
England were tormented for years due to their lack of quality left-wingers and the Man United legend was the unfortunate sacrificial lamb.
The Gerrard/Lampard problem
In the days of 4-4-2 England’s two world-class centre-mids failed to live up to their billing.
There was much debate over who should be the more advanced of the two and both seemed confused about their roles.
In hindsight, a different formation may have provided the solution but it would have been bold of Sven-Goran Eriksson to ditch the tactical approach that saw his side finish top of their qualifying group undefeated.
The preferred starting XI in 2004 contained four key pairings: Neville and Scholes, Campbell and Cole, Terry and Lampard & Gerrard and Owen.
Otherwise known as Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
The sheer competitiveness of the Premier League meant there was friction when they came together on England duty.
Gerrard, Lampard, Neville and others have since revealed they felt their club loyalties should remain firm at all times.
England’s superstars were direct rivals for the majority of the year and that dynamic clearly hindered the team spirit at major tournaments.
Right ingredients, wrong recipe
However, the relative failure must be down to the manager.
Eriksson had a wealth of resources and was backed by the FA for three tournaments.
A hat-trick of quarter-finals was an ultimately underwhelming end product.
Simply selecting the four best midfielders and hoping they’d fall into place was a naive approach.
All these years later England fans can only ponder what might have been…