In the wake of Euro 2008, skysports.com ponders whether England are an underachieving team.
Last Updated: 02/07/08 11:36am
This may be controversial, but is England's third-placed qualification finish behind Euro 2008 quarter-finalists and semi-finalists as great a crime as was perceived in November last year?
Had England missed out on booking a place in Austria and Switzerland after failing to overhaul world champions Italy, Portugal or Holland - who, like Croatia, fell at the last eight stage this summer - would there have been such uproar?
Would blind panic about the bleak long-term outlook of the English domestic game have broken out had champions Spain - who were the only team capable of defeating Russia this June - served the Three Lions their qualification just deserts?
Before this is met with general guffaws consider with perspective. Someone once told me with off-the-cuff flippancy that as a general rule they did not much care for any form of music. Now there is a sweeping hullabaloo-inducing statement, which puts this argument in context.
What right did England have to presume they would stroll through qualification Group E ahead of Croatia and Russia? A hat-trick of quarter-final appearances in their last three major tournament outings was comfortably matched and surpassed by Slaven Bilic and Guus Hiddink's respective sides this year.
Former England manager Steve McClaren was hung out to dry for being out of his depth at international level as he reached for the job pages following the damp 3-2 defeat to Croatia at Wembley seven months ago, yet he is often heralded as one of the best coaches of players in the business.
At the time there were rumblings of a misplaced self-assured smugness which came with the perception of guaranteed qualification, and Euro 2008 has proved the case. McClaren's greatest misdemeanour was not a tactical ineptitude, but a chronic underestimation of Croatia and Russia, the pair appear to have been dismissed because they were not recognised as world-beaters on account of geography.
Prior to one of his 18 games in charge of England, McClaren and his bank manager's smile could consistently be seen preaching the benefits of positive thinking in the assumption that JT, Stevie G, Wazzer and co. would be too good and that the rest would take care of itself.
Excuses about a dodgy divot in Zagreb and a plastic pitch in Moscow were offered, but Andrei Arshavin giving Joleon Lescott the run around or Luka Modric bypassing Scott Parker is now far more believable.
This is not arguing that England are a team of legends producing an impression of the Dog & Duck's Sunday League reserve XI, and that they have learnt their lessons to take everyone by surprise - including Croatia - when the 2010 World Cup qualifiers come calling in the autumn, far from it.
A 0-0 draw with Macedonia also blatantly cost England dear and the Football Association undoubtedly has a point as it repeatedly airs concerns about the fearful future and the lack of homegrown talent in the Premier League.
Indeed, it could be suggested that it is a decade since England possessed the potentially winning combination of a quality side and cohesive team spirit as the 1998 World Cup campaign ended in an infamously dramatic and narrow penalty shoot-out defeat to Argentina - faith healers apart.
At the European Championship in 2000, big-hearted chief Kevin Keegan helped team spirit along with a few, allegedly, friendly games of snap, but the quality was never there as previous stars approached their sell-by-date.
While under the charge of Swede Sven Goran Eriksson the 'Golden Generation' skills were there for all to see but, as previously discussed, a trio of last eight appearances are all that appear in the record books to suggest something was lacking.
Now it is Italian Fabio Capello - and his impeccable club record - who occupies the hot-seat but it is highly unlikely that England are suddenly set to undergo a metamorphosis process into the Harlem Globetrotters.
The talent levels are more than apparent, which is perhaps what irks supporters the most, but Capello - to the outside eye - has inherited a team lacking a little in spirit and has players, who look all set for the Hall of Fame at club level, devoid of self-confidence following previous international failures.
By the logic of the primary school playground, had England's qualification campaign been a success, Russia would not have been present at an enthralling Euro 2008 and instead it would have been McClaren and the boys who would have taken the tournament by storm and reached the final four.
However, there lies the argument. It is hard to believe that a climbing frame conclusion would ring true. For instance, it is difficult to picture Barcelona now chasing a skilful, neat and tidy English forward - Jermain Defoe to pull a name from a hat - as is the case with Arshavin.
It cannot be forgotten that Russia were comprehensively put to the sword at Wembley, in a style similar to Spain's two emphatic victories over Hiddink's side in Austria and Switzerland, to suggest that the quality is there. But, as was the case with Holland in the quarter-finals, England were also soundly beaten.
To be compared to Marco van Basten's counter-attacking Dutch masters cannot be seen as too great a criticism but, having navigated a way out of this year's 'Group of Death', perhaps Holland fell to the same failure to award Hiddink's side the respect they deserved.
The focus, though, does not solely fall upon Russia as they were also aided and abetted by Croatia in bringing about England's downfall, with the latter causing greater damage after administering home and away qualification beatings.
Russia progressed further than Croatia at Euro 2008 but, had it not been for a late goal mugging and penalty shoot-out choke against Turkey, Bilic's side could have set up a semi-final meeting with runners-up Germany - a side they had already defeated in the group stages - and who knows what could have happened?
Throughout qualification, Bilic - in between blasts on his electric guitar - consistently cautioned McClaren and England about the dangers of complacency and, as warnings fell upon deaf ears, hindsight portrays the Croatian boss as an increasingly shrewd character.
That is the overall point. England are perhaps not as great as we all thought, but they are also not a totally doomed side either.
The case is that England were not, and quite possibly are not, as good as European quarter-finalists Croatia and semi-finalists Russia and a failure to acknowledge that brought about their downfall.