What was it like to play against England’s golden generation at a World Cup?
Chris Birchall is a man who knows all too well.
You’ll have watched England frustrate their fans at World Cups in the past, knocked out by penalty shoot-outs, brilliant goals and better teams, but what was it like to play against them?
More specifically, what was it like to play against the so-called golden generation? The Three Lions side that, between the years of 2001 and 2006, threatened intermittently to be great?
Chris Birchall knows.
The then-Port Vale midfielder discovered in 2005 that he was eligible to play for Trinidad and Tobago, and after helping them qualify for their first World Cup, the draw dictated that he would face Sven-Goran Eriksson’s talented side in Germany.
“The BBC followed me where I went to watch the draw, and I think everyone was hoping Trinidad would pull out England in the group,” Birchall told the Press Association.
“I was hoping for a big team. The chances were quite remote, but it came out and everyone was roaring. The place had a great atmosphere.”
Stafford-born Birchall of course knew all about England’s star-studded line-up. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard et al played two divisions above him in the Premier League, while later in his career he would play with David Beckham at LA Galaxy.
But intimidating as those famous faces could be, England’s reputation preceded them.
“Even back then England had the reputation that they’d go and win the qualifiers and the group, but always buckled when it came to big tournaments,” said Birchall.
“That was in our minds, that we could maybe go and cause an upset. But in the back of your mind you’re thinking: ‘I don’t want to get embarrassed here and lose 5-0 or 6-0, which a lot of people were expecting to happen (to us) every game.”
Despite knowing England had struggled at World Cups in the past, knocked out at the quarter-finals in 2002 and the last-16 in 1998, there was no ignoring the fact that they were a seeded side, while Trinidad and Tobago were drawn from pot four.
The gulf in player quality and Fifa rankings then was stark, but manager Leo Beenhakker was aware of England’s weaknesses and told his players as much.
“He spent hours and hours with us going through the tactics that England would play, and he got it to a tee the day we played them,” said Birchall. “What he said really happened. England were playing long ball up to Crouch and we frustrated them.
“He wanted us to get in their face. As soon as Lampard and Gerrard get on the ball, get really tight to them. If he spins you, then go with him.
“Don’t be overawed, play your game, and they will get frustrated and play long balls. Crouch was 6ft 7in, but we had Dennis Lawrence who was the same height, so we combated that and neutralised David Beckham’s crosses.”
And so to the game. The Franken-Stadion in Nuremberg, 18:00 local time. England had recorded a laboured 1-0 win against Paraguay in their Group B opener, while Trinidad and Tobago had earned a surprise point against Sweden.
“Lining up in the tunnel you’re looking to your left-hand side thinking: ‘Jesus Christ, I’ve grown up watching these unbelievable players,'” said Birchall.
“In the first five or 10 minutes you’re praying not to concede a goal. And then as it gets to half-time, 0-0. You come out, it’s an hour, and you think: ‘Wow. Surely they’re going to score soon.’
“And then it clicks that they’re not creating these great chances that you see them create against others.”
Yes, England were frustrated. On 58 minutes, Aaron Lennon came on for Jamie Carragher, while Rooney made his World Cup debut coming on for Michael Owen.
On 75 minutes, Joe Cole made way for Stewart Downing, but still the score remained 0-0 going into the final period of the game.
“The time’s never gone so slow,” said Birchall. “I was looking up at the clock thinking: ‘It’s close to 80 minutes here, we’re 10 minutes away from an unbelievable result where the media will slaughter England for it and the media in Trinidad will hail us as heroes.
“Up until 50-60 minutes you could see England were being patient,” he continued. “They were trying to break us down through the middle but it wasn’t happening.
“In the last 20 minutes, every time they got the ball from the full-backs they were trying to ping it up to Crouchy or get it out to Beckham, and he’s putting cross after cross after cross into the box.
“It was just a sense that when things weren’t going right, and they couldn’t break teams down, they went into panic mode. It really wasn’t a threat until the last 10 minutes.”
In the 83rd minute England did break the deadlock, Crouch finally getting on the end of a long ball to nod home before Gerrard made it 2-0 in the 90th minute. Trinidad and Tobago were left devastated, while England had escaped embarrassment.
While England got over the line that day, they eventually crashed out on penalties to Portugal in the quarter-final. Birchall said his own experience against the Three Lions was enough to suggest his opponents didn’t have enough to take the trophy home.
“After speaking to my teammates in the years gone by, they just felt that that was a great squad that England had, but together they didn’t play well at all,” he said.
“Especially in that World Cup it just seemed like they didn’t have a plan B. Even though they won the game I think it showed the public and media that they probably weren’t good enough to go on and win the World Cup.”