Steven Gerrard recalls the pain of missing out on the Euros after 2007 defeat at Wembley and says the atmosphere is 'completely different' before the final World Cup qualifier against Poland
Steven Gerrard has been quietly reminding his younger England team-mates recently about what happened on that rain-sodden night against Croatia in 2007 and how, the following summer, he always made sure he was out, or at least away from a television, whenever the European Championship was being played.
"A memory I'll struggle to reject," as Gerrard now puts it, recalling the 3-2 defeat that meant Euro 2008 went ahead without England and the end of Steve McClaren as manager. "It's a memory I will have to take to the grave with me. One of the lowest moments of my international journey. One of those memories that just keeps coming back and coming back."
The top professionals often use the disappointments rather than the good moments for inspiration. Gerrard is certainly that way. Ask him if there is one particular thought in his mind approaching England's final World Cup qualifier against Poland and he replies it is "a big, massive picture of the Croatia game in 2007". He is one of only two players, alongside Frank Lampard, still in the team and, in Gerrard's words, "hoping we never have the same again".
As captain, this has been his message to the newer members of Roy Hodgson's squad. "There's a way of putting it across. You'd never want to scare a young lad. But I have spoken to the lads about that feeling, on the bus, going to games. It's about making sure they're aware how big this game is, what's at stake, and that we need to seize this moment. We didn't perform against Croatia. It wasn't about nerves. Once the game starts your nerves have gone. We just underperformed. We need to look back at this next game with a smile rather than how I do about 2007."
Happily for England there is a difference between now and then. McClaren's England had a raft of injuries, including three-quarters of their usual defence. Wayne Rooney was missing and the infamous decision to start with Scott Carson in goal came about because Paul Robinson could no longer be trusted. Joe Hart might be an ongoing issue for the current England but at least Hodgson is in charge of a confident team, with only partial absenteeism. As Gerrard said: "The feeling is completely different this time. We've got nearly everyone fit. We're playing well and we're coming into this game on the back of a really good performance."
There is also the suspicion, as Hodgson pointed out, that England sometimes get a little too bogged down remembering what has gone before. "History's important when it comes to Churchillian terms, politically, but in sport I don't think it has any relevance," Hodgson said. "As far as I'm concerned, the words 'Croatia' and '2007' are of no interest. The last thing we want to do is dwell on something negative from six years ago."
Hodgson was also asked about the England-Poland encounter of 1973 and recalled being largely oblivious to it, living in Pretoria at the time and "about to get the train to Cape Town, then a boat to Southampton, and with no TV in South Africa". But he left it there. "We can't change the Croatia result or suddenly make it that Jan Tomaszewski plays badly in 1973." In other words, focus on the present, not the past.
Of far more relevance to the England manager is whether Andros Townsend has recovered from the bang to his left leg that he took against Montenegro and whether his team are sufficiently drilled to combat the menace of Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski, the two players in Poland's team who should cause consternation.
More than anything Hodgson must try to put out a side that can take off from where they left Friday's Montenegro game. If they can manage that, they should be able to demonstrate why Poland are the fourth-best team in a moderate group and, in turn, fulfil Gerrard's hope to be "the proudest man in the country". Only a win will be enough when Ukraine have the obligatory walkover against San Marino, the alternative being a two-legged play-off, with France, Turkey, Sweden or Iceland currently the four possible opponents in Monday's draw.
Gerrard, speaking from personal experience of the most harrowing times, made the point the team seemed more equipped these days to handle the pressures from playing at Wembley, pointing out that there was "more excitement than fear" these days. Townsend's performance against Montenegro was evidence of that and, since he has taken a full part in training, it would be almost as much a surprise if he loses his place now as it was that he started on Friday.
As for the fact that Poland will have 20,000 supporters inside Wembley, did anyone actually think it would be any different? The FA have at least put them in one section rather than having them in every part of the stadium and it would be a drab old excuse if England's players were worried about the noise of the away fans. Thankfully none of them seems to be.
The important thing is that England play in a way to ensure their own supporters turn up the volume. Gerrard neatly summed it up. "Seventy thousand to 20,000?" he asked. "I'd take that all day long."