THE evening started with Daily Mail sports columnist Jeff Powell rescuing my passport, and just got more surreal from there.
I’d taken my passport with me to Wembley as a form of ID, in order to pass the stringent security checks that journalists have to undergo to gain entry to the stadium.
But as I collected my ticket and match programme, and took my laptop with me towards the Wembley lift, I heard a deep, rich voice behind me.
He shouted: “Michael! Do you not want your passport? Silly boy!” He only knew my name from looking inside the passport I had accidentally left on the front desk. But I immediately recognised him.
Powell might have called me a silly boy, but I got off lightly. Over the next few days, he would describe England as a second-world football nation, its players as over-rated under-achievers and the new Wembley as a funeral parlour. Never let anyone try to convince you he saves his rage solely for foreigners.
Steve McClaren had enjoyed a good relationship with the press during his early days as England manager, particularly those sections who had never much liked Sven-Goran Eriksson. Here, we were told, was a highly-rated coach, fresh from taking Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final, who was ready to prove that an Englishman was good enough to lead the national team to success at Euro 2008.
A goalless draw at home to Macedonia and a defeat in Croatia soon began to undermine him. Defeat in Russia took England’s destiny out of their hands. As the qualifying campaign neared its end, it began to look as if England’s final game, at home to Croatia, would be meaningless.
I had started covering England’s home games for the Manchester Evening News in the summer of 2007, at a time when I was weighing up the pros and cons of going freelance. It was something I had always wanted to do at some point in my career, and having turned 30 earlier in the year, felt that it was now or never. I didn’t have a family to support, which reduced the risk, and had received encouragement after putting out feelers for work.
Having made a decision, I handed in my notice in the autumn, so that I would leave at the end of November 2007.
Making the jump was scary, but the M.E.N. couldn’t have been nicer about it, and were kind enough to offer me the chance to continue to work for them on a freelance basis.
England games, though, were always covered by a staffer. So the Croatia game, played nine days before I left the payroll, was to be my final international to date. It would turn out to be the final international to date for both McClaren and his umbrella, too.
The build-up to the game had been incredibly odd. Four days beforehand, England had been given an unexpected lifeline when Omer Golan’s last-minute winner for Israel defeated Russia. It meant that England needed only a draw against Croatia, and McClaren’s demeanour in the few days before the game was of a man who couldn’t believe his luck. Admitting that he’d had to hide in the bathroom during the tense final 10 minutes of the Israel-Russia game, as he did during an interview with Sky Sports News, was perhaps unwise though.
McClaren had reason to be nervous, though. He had no Wayne Rooney, no Michael Owen, no Rio Ferdinand and no John Terry. And with the backbone of his team injured, he decided to take the biggest gamble of his managerial career by changing the goalkeeper too.
Paul Robinson’s international form had been on the slide ever since Gary Neville’s back pass bobbled over his foot and into the net in Zagreb 13 months earlier. But his replacement, Scott Carson, was to have a nightmare.
It was a wet Wednesday night at Wembley. So wet, that the groundstaff were frantically pitchforking the pitch to drain away puddles in the goalmouth during the national anthems.
That can’t have helped Carson. Eight minutes in, Niko Kranjcar’s long-range speculator skidded in front the keeper, squirted through his hands and hit the net. The cheers of the Croatia fans were drowned out by the gasps from the home support. Ivica Olic rounded the keeper to make it two in the 14th minute, and I had some serious rewriting to do.
In order to make the M.E.N. print deadline for its early editions, I had to e-mail my 900-word report to the office on the final whistle, which meant I had to write it as the game was in progress. To get ahead of myself, I’d started writing on the assumption that England would qualify. Time for a re-think.
By half-time, I had McClaren’s managerial obituary written. The forlorn figure under the umbrella – it was the Daily Mail who coined ‘Wally with a brolly’ – looked to be on his way out.
McClaren brought on David Beckham, a player he had dropped from the squad after to taking charge, only to recall him when the going started to look dodgy. But it was the other half-time sub, Jermain Defoe, who won the penalty which Frank Lampard converted to make it 2-1.
Beckham, though, created the equaliser, crossing from the right for Peter Crouch to control and blast home. 2-2. As it stood, England were through. Cue another rewrite.
During the second half, I effectively had two match reports on the go – one to submit if England qualified, one if they didn’t. With 13 minutes to go, Mladen Petric’s low shot from the edge of the penalty area determined which version I would use.
McClaren did his best to tough out the after-match press conference. “I don’t think this is the time to discuss my future, so soon after a huge disappointment,” he said. But he knew, as we all did.
I drove home from Wembley that night, astonished at what I had seen. I was unable to go straight to bed when I got in, and didn’t get to sleep until around 5am. By the time I awoke, McClaren had been fired.
“Frankly, I am now past caring if the new manager comes from England or Mars,” Powell wrote. Neither, as it turned out.
The following Saturday, I was assigned to cover Morecambe v Bury, my final match as an M.E.N. staffer. A new adventure awaited me, as it did McClaren, eventually. But I didn’t need to learn Dutch for mine – or even use a passport.