The situation was bleak.
Germany, 16 points from 6 games, needed a win to confirm their place in the 2002 World Cup finals. England, six points behind, knew anything other than victory meant a place in the playoffs to reach Japan/South Korea the following summer – indeed no soccer prediction would have seen what was to come.
The Deutscher Fußball-Bund was supremely confident in Die Mannschaft winning. So confident they arranged friendlies on the dates of the World Cup qualifying playoff matches.
They had good reason to believe the fates were on their side.
Unbeaten in Munich’s Olympic Stadium since 1973, England hadn’t won in Germany since May 1965 and Germany had lost just one of their previous 60 World Cup qualifiers.
Not only that, in the reverse fixture of this World Cup qualifying campaign, Didi Hamaan scored the only goal of the game.
Defeat left English football in turmoil. The whole edifice was crumbling as quickly as the national stadium, with Kevin Keegan quitting the England job in a Wembley toilet cubicle. Sven Goran Eriksson’s reign would be equally ill-fated. Little did we know that it reached its’ peak on 1st September 2001.
The Swede named four strikers in his squad for the game. Michael Owen was at that time, undroppable but who would accompany him in the favoured 4 – 4 – 2? Robbie Fowler and Andy Cole – he hadn’t yet grown up enough to demand being called ‘Andrew’ – were up against Emile Heskey for the second striking role.
The Liverpool striker couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo with 2 goals in 16 appearances for his country. Fowler and Cole only had to look at the ball for it to end up in the net but Heskey and Owen bonded; Eriksson trusted that more than statistics.
Six minutes in, it seemed to be a mistake. Michael Ballack strolled from the halfway line and delivered a chipped cross toward the arc of England’s penalty area. Oliver Neuville, all 5 foot 7 inches of him, looped a header into the path of Carsten Jancker, the most English of German centre-forwards, who prodded the ball past David Seaman.
The footballing world watched, anticipating a crushing victory after a flying start. It duly arrived.
The clock moved to the twelfth minute when Sebastien Deisler needlessly fouled Michael Owen near the corner flag. David Beckham delivered a poor free kick to far post, which Steven Gerrard retrieved by hooking to the middle of his own half. As the German defence accelerated out of their penalty area, three England attackers stormed toward the goal. Nick Barmby beat Oliver Kahn to the ball, heading the ball sideways for Owen to slot home.
Germany responded. David Seaman produced a fine save from Boehme while Deisler’s miserable night was compounded when he fluffed his lines from six yards out.
On the stroke of half-time, Beckham delivered another woeful free-kick but found Rio Ferdinand with his second attempt. The Manchester United defender cushioned his header found Steven Gerrard twenty yards from goal.
So often Liverpool’s saviour, his curling effort zipped into the bottom corner of Kahn’s net. As he slid on the turf in celebration, pint glasses around the country launched into the air as the nation leapt to its feet.
The shrill peep of Pierluigi Collina’s whistle barely died into the night sky when England extended their lead. Heskey leapt above his marker and headed Beckham’s cross into the path of the unmarked Owen. Knee over the ball, he struck the ball firmly at Kahn, too powerfully for the German goalkeeper to stop.
3 – 1 and Johnny Rotten had it right; England was dreaming.
Jancker set Ballack up with a glorious chance to reduce the deficit. His finish cleared the England bar by twenty feet, an impressive feat from ten yards out.
Midway through the second half, the contest was over. Gerrard broke up a nascent German attack and three strides later, bisected the home side’s defence to send Owen clear. A venomous drive made it 4 – 1 and Owen had his hat-trick.
Television recorded the home fans pouring out into the Munich streets.
There was one more twist to come. Scholes won possession in his own half and found Beckham. The perfectly weighted return pass set Scholes free with Heskey for company. A square pass found the Liverpool man in space and despite pressure from Rehmer, slotted home.
A hugely popular goal, with the country joining his team-mates in the joy of the moment. Heskey’s career would never get better than this Munich night and few begrudge a man who was slated regularly in his playing days, a moment in the spotlight.
Sixteen years on, it’s hard to think that England has bettered this match. A footballing ghost was laid to rest and for the briefest of moments, the nation dared to believe.