"We wish Steve McQueen and his team good luck," the FA chairman mistakenly told dignitaries and guests before the match. Sadly, this was no night for Hollywood heroes riding to the rescue. Steve McClaren, not Steve McQueen, is the England head coach, at least in the short term. And there is to be no Great Escape.
England are out of the European Championships because, on the night, they could not defend. McClaren's decision to introduce his previous third-choice goalkeeper, Scott Carson, for Paul Robinson was at the heart of the calamity, but to hold him solely responsible would be absolve the quartet in front of him from blame. On a night when a clean sheet would have been enough to qualify, to concede one goal was unfortunate, to concede three was, frankly, pathetic. The mitigation that McClaren had a back four missing and was on his fifth and sixth-choice central defenders does not wash. English football has to be better than this; and, when it is not, the man in charge knows what to expect.
McClaren will be judged harshly in some quarters for his failure to start with David Beckham, too, but that was not the reason for defeat here. Shaun Wright-Phillips was not to blame for the two goals that England were behind after 14 minutes and played reasonably well in the first half, and Beckham could not have withstood 90 minutes anyway. McClaren used him as an impact substitute and an impact he made, setting up the equaliser for Peter Crouch. England's problem was failing to cling to that undeserved lifeline. The third goal, from Mladen Petric, a substitute, underlined the harsh truth of the night: Croatia's attack was vastly superior to England's defence, as was their technique. The best team won: the group, the match, the psychological battle, the lot, really.
After the worst possible start, for 12 brief minutes it seemed possible that Geoff Thompson had not momentarily lost his marbles when he erroneously named a dead Hollywood star as the England head coach before the match. As Petric's shot inched wide of the desperate hand of Carson with 13 minutes remaining, it all came flooding back, though. McQueen does not escape after all, does he? He is caught on the barbed wire, freedom in sight. McClaren will know how he feels. After Crouch had equalised, his team had to resist Croatia not for 90 minutes, but a mere 25. At that point, a place in the tournament was in sight. Who knows where his next competitive match will be played now?
England's qualifying horrors
Picking Carson was his least controversial decision to many, but it drew most criticism from the professional game. There will be many knowing shakes of the head from the old sweats after this. Big matches require an experienced goalkeeper, they will say, and who can now argue after Carson entered his personal world of pain. Robinson's error in Russia had left England in the lurch and few made the case for his continued occupation of the role, yet all knew the risks of sending in a rookie; a man making his debut in a competitive international in a match in which only one mistake had the potential to stay ingrained on the national psyche for ever. In the circumstances, nobody would have wished what happened to Carson on their worst enemy because he made more mistakes than that.
Disaster befell him from Croatia's first attack. Only eight minutes had passed, and England were looking untroubled, when Niko Kranjcar collected the ball in central midfield and attempted a speculative shot that should have been nothing more than a first feel of the ball for Carson. It pitched in front of him, and the wet surface may have contributed, but even the most active member of the goalkeepers' union would find it hard to make a stand on his behalf over what happened next.
Simply, it went through his hands and, with it, any hope that the match could be played without a cloud of migraine-inducing tension descending on McClaren's men. From that instant, Carson, too, was shot to pieces. He had three other memorable moments in the first half, not one of them positive. He was stranded for Croatia's second goal, kicked a clearance straight to a blue shirt and only parried a shot that was hit directly at him, forcing a panicked clearance and horrified howls from supporters that were now watching in anguish. It was a surprise that he came out for the second half and one can think only that McClaren wished to give the young man a chance to redeem himself, which he was doing until beaten from range by the winner, to which he got his fingertips. At the end, there were no jeers in his direction, no resounding chorus of disapproval. The boos that came were collectively aimed because no one had the heart to single out the man in the yellow shirt.
It was not as if his defenders helped. Croatia's second was an error-strewn horror show, an atrocious goal to concede. Eduardo da Silva set it up, cutting inside, untroubled by a tackle of significance. As he slipped the ball through to Ivica Olic, Wayne Bridge and Wright-Phillips were caught appealing forlornly for offside. Carson was left wickedly exposed as Olic skipped around him and tapped the ball into an empty net.
In many ways, England had no right to be back in this match at all. At half-time they were not so much dead and buried, as mummified and on display at the Millennium Dome. Yet somehow the match turned. Buoyed by necessity and the introduction of Beckham at half-time, England rose and began to walk, albeit stiffly. The merest tug on the shirt of Jermain Defoe, a substitute, by Josip Simunic yielded a penalty. Frank Lampard, so often the whipping boy, stood over the ball, called on reserves of bravery and buried his shot low to the right of Stipe Pletikosa, the goalkeeper. Beckham also rose to the occasion. It appeared to be his night once more when his perfect cross from the right found Crouch for England's equaliser.
Crouch's scoring record in an England shirt did not include a competitive goal in a match against a team ranked higher than 75th in the world. Yet here he was, living his fantasy as the man who took England to the finals. If only. McClaren not McQueen, remember, is the England head coach and when Petric scored, his journey was over as howls of furious, frustrated derision followed him down the sodden tunnel.
Beckham was last to leave, appearing to take a final look around the stadium, one short of a century of caps. English football does have its Hollywood connection but it would appear this time, even Beckham's scriptwriters, like those in Los Angeles, were on strike.
By Henry Winter
Outclassed, outfought and outthought, England are out of Euro 2008 and Steve McClaren will surely be out of work after the FA board meet this morning, deservedly so. Russia qualify behind the outstanding Croatians and England have only themselves, and their hapless manager, to blame.