After England had done the bare minimum in beating Andorra, the press were fearing the worst. Fabio Capello risked a joke following the 2‑0 grind in Barcelona: “I will be happy if Croatia play like Andorra. But I don’t think that is going to happen!” If anyone in his audience found that funny they kept it to themselves. The general mood wasn’t improved on the day before the match, with Capello suggesting that his players play better away from home: “At Wembley, the crowd whistle after the first mistake.” “It was not much of a vote of confidence in the England fans,” huffed the Independent, while Matt Law in the Daily Express was concerned that “it will also dismay the FA, who spent £757 million and seven years building Wembley”.
On the morning of the match, with the previews anticipating a draw at best, the Sun tried to work up a visual “joke” to match the Turnip insult hurled at Graham Taylor in 1992. This was connected to another event happening that day, the recreation of the Big Bang at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Alongside a doctored picture of Capello, reporter “Ray Diation” claimed that England’s World Cup hopes could also disappear into a black hole if they were to lose in Zagreb. The paper’s chief football writer, Shaun Custis, may have been expecting to develop the theme while reviewing another England defeat the following day. In the event, he had to settle for a brisk reprise of the concept in his final paragraph before concluding that England had “made a very big bang of their own”.
Expectations have been so firmly damped down over the past few years that even the victory achieved in Zagreb couldn’t generate the sort of roaring dementia brought on by the 5-1 defeat of Germany in 2001. Instead, the focus was on the player variously described as Theo The Lion, Boy Wonder and Superstud (the latter due to his having lost a stud in his boot in the first half). According to the Daily Mirror, Walcott “came of age” in the Maksimir Stadium, while Sun columnist Harry Redknapp senses that a process is under way, the precise nature of which he isn’t able to reveal: “Maybe, just maybe, Capello is about to take a group of young lads and turn them into men.” Antlers will be discreetly removed on the coach to Wembley for the Kazakhstan match in October.
From WSC 261 November 2008