A weekend on which the clichéd magic of the FA Cup returned in a puff of smoke. Concerns for Mourinho, Van Gaal, Pellegrini and Rodgers. And The Rosicky Show...
It's a bonus Saturday Mailbox, with plenty of reaction to the most alarming 0-0 draw in Manchester United's recent history. At what point do we worry about Louis van Gaal?
Sunday morning at St Pancras International and, alongside the concern over Gary Cahill, the papers are full of mildly positive analysis of England's defensive victory against Belgium, Roy Hodgson's first home game and a decent farewell to the team ahead of Euro 2012. In five days the tournament starts, when Poland play Greece in Warsaw; in eight days England kick off their campaign against France in Donetsk; but my European Championship really starts now, with the first proper leg of a leisurely, sedentary journey through what Professor Brian Cox would call space and time. And my first destination is where I nearly gave up watching England.
This is my sixth Euro finals, 20 years after my first, following Graham Taylor's Turnips in Sweden. I have just been to Norway, England play the Swedes in Kiev and go back to Stockholm in November but for now, like Portugal for 2004, eastern Scandinavia is too far a detour to embrace. There are worse ways to spend a week, though, than zigzagging across the continent looking for landmarks of European Championships past, present and future, and places where our dreams have been dashed.
The trip to Brussels begins on the north side of central London these days but the Eurostar still throws up memories of setting out from the Belgian-named Waterloo during Euro 2000. And if there's one slight cause for optimism in 2012, it is that a dozen years ago England went to a European Championship arguably in a worse state than they do now, albeit with some of the cracks papered over. Back then the team's participation had been at massive risk on the pitch and off it.
As is the case now, we had lost the coach who had begun the qualifying campaign, albeit earlier than occurred with Fabio Capello. Glenn Hoddle's incoherent expression of his religious views offered a convenient excuse for a spurious moral crusade against him, after some poor results and worse PR. The media were not content at dethroning a coach, though, they had to crown the successor: Kevin Keegan.
We scraped into the finals only via the play-offs, after the media messiah managed only two wins (one against Luxembourg) in his five qualifiers. It took a favour from the group-winning Swedes to secure a play-off, in which we so nearly threw away a two-goal advantage secured in Scotland. Bleak images spring to mind as Kent flashes by, of Emile Heskey and Jamie Redknapp heroically shepherding the ball out of play at the old Wembley as we laboured to protect a one-goal deficit on the night. Never has a defeat been greeted with more relief.
The next summer some optimism was fostered by friendly results and performances - notably a 2-0 win against Ukraine - before we set off for the Low Countries. Dreams seemed possible during a superb opening against a Portugal side who allowed David Beckham to take crosses in open play as though they were free-kicks. But a 2-0 lead in Eindhoven was lost through recklessness and became a 3-2 defeat.
Meanwhile, English hooliganism abroad was at one of its peaks. The national team's general problem lingered, exacerbated by a general backlash against all Turkish people after the murder of some randomly chosen, innocent bystanding Leeds fans before a UEFA Cup semi-final leg away to Galatasaray. There had already been a blight on Copenhagen for the final, which Arsenal lost on penalties to the Istanbul side; now for a tournament with Turkey among the qualifiers.
England's defeat to Portugal passed off peacefully but now England left the Netherlands for the Belgian mining town of Charleroi, and a date with Germany. It was a miserable display on and off the pitch.
Remarkably, Germany proved less adept at football than England, Alan Shearer's goal dividing two sides with at times barely a first touch between them; Carsten Jancker and Martin Keown offered two possible visions for what would have happened had Dr Frankenstein decided to make an international footballer.
What happened in the streets around the ground was not monstrous, just depressingly childish and predictable. We arrived in Charleroi in time for one drink before the game, long enough for three incidents to stick in the mind. First, a Brummie with a parodically monotonous voice epitomised the baggage England supporters carry by telling a barman: "Yow kno, if it wasn't for the English yer'd be a Kraut." Second, a man red of face, arms and legs burst in as we drank up, caught his breath to beg: "Have you got a TV showing the game?" and said: "Why not?" when the reply was in the negative. And third, as we walked to the ground I heard - for what remains the last time - the anti-IRA ditty "Could you take a chicken supper, Bobby Sands?".
What we had missed was the chair-throwing and glass-breaking, the general mayhem in which some English fans had engaged. After the 'Kraut' remark to the barman I had found myself apologising for the stupidity of a stranger but this was mere insult on a day of injury. Fifteen years after Liverpool supporters had been the principal cause of the deaths of 39 people at the Heysel disaster, compatriots blamed the Belgian police for not letting drunken antics run their course, or tried arguing the Turkish were worse. The game had been on a Saturday; picking up Radio 5 on the car radio after Yugoslavia v Norway on the Sunday night we discovered England were out of the tournament not only if they lost to Romania but also if there was a repeat of the trouble at this final group game, also in Charleroi. And if we made it through? A likely quarter-final against Italy, with a contingent of Juventus fans, at Brussels' Stade Roi Baudoin, as the rebuilt Heysel is known.
My flatmate could only make the weekend games so I had to swap his car for the train again. An industrial centre with a hotel shortage, Charleroi was somewhere you travelled to rather than stayed in but all trains back to the capital after the Romania game were cancelled, to be replaced by a fleet of coaches. In this way a build-up of fans could be avoided: no sooner had 50 of us arrived at the station than we would be dispatched. There had been clashes with Brussels' Turkish community, too, so to board a coach you had to show proof you had a hotel room, and weren't just looking for a night of mayhem.
Hotel voucher secured, I ventured to the game relieved to see that UEFA's threats were not being taken lightly. In a subdued atmosphere I took a seat in the front row behind the goal England attacked in the first half. At the other end Romania took a deserved lead. As so often, Despondency took the seat next to me and rested its feet on the barrier, watching the opposition threaten to open a conclusive advantage.
Just before half-time, though, in my excitement I was on my feet tossing Despondency over the fence as first Paul Ince was brought down and Alan Shearer converted, then Owen rounded the goalkeeper to collect his own chip and slid the ball home.
Looking back, at least we could enjoy half-time. Three minutes after the break, Nigel Martyn committed himself to a cross he could not properly reach and was stranded. It was 2-2, with 42 minutes of siege to go. With 19 of them gone, a hobbling Owen was withdrawn, the best chance of easing the pressure by catching Romania on the break gone. Despondency had dusted itself down and was starting to make its way back up to the second tier.
It was fresh agony of the kind inflicted by Scotland in the play-off second leg. Just when it seemed we would escape again, Phil Neville - losing control of his limbs as if he and his brother Gary were Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men - committed the most telegraphed of fouls after Viorel Moldovan broke towards the byline. Ioan Ganea converted from the spot and Despondency pulled out a cigar.
Anger subdued by UEFA's threats, the trip back to Brussels went seamlessly for those with hotel clearance. The capital eats late and perhaps as early as midnight I was able to order a steak dinner to help get over the disappointment. But did I think I had had a bad night? I overheard a group of England fans at a nearby table lamenting that they had not heard of the hotel voucher scheme and they had just had to shell out about £100 on a taxi.
In due course - maybe during dessert - a group of flag-bearing Romanians walked past and were greeted by polite applause from the rest of the clientele, including a smattering from myself; aside from the five minutes before half-time Romania had been the better side. The group of England fans were unimpressed, though: the clapping was anti-English bias. They personally had not caused any trouble, why should they suffer the injury of the £100 taxi fair and the insult of their team's exit being applauded?
In their very early 20s, they probably could not remember Heysel. Perhaps they did not appreciate how long-standing the national team's problem was - as long ago as 1977, nearby Luxembourg had talked of forfeiting the game should they ever be drawn against England again.
The next night in Bruges I saw Spain beat Yugoslavia 4-3, one of the classic matches, avoiding an early exit with two goals in added time. In terms of going to watch international tournaments it was the best possible restorative. But to travel to Brussels - to catch a train for a couple of stops whose destination is Charleroi - is to revisit the place where I nearly gave up on watching England.
Unlike the team, I went all the way to the final and could not help but enjoy matches without the anxiety that fellow supporters could cost my team their place in the tournament. Every country's following has some level of moron element but in that era, ours seemed dominant and close to out of control. I'd stood between someone smashing their seat and a Polish riot policeman in 91, hoping to God the latter wasn't going to come through me to get to the former. I'd been through Sweden 92 and Oslo 93, and watched aghast from the safety of the office as the Dublin riot forced an abandonment in 95. I had had to summon the police to a central London incident in our supposed summer of football love, Euro 96. I had been stung by the tear gas in Marseille in 98 and seen Poles drenched by beer for the offence of turning up at Wembley in 99, and countless other moments when anyone who truly loved their country could only wilt with embarrassment. To endure so much shame for so little footballing reward took me to the edge.
To drag the reminiscence away from England and towards the present, the tournament featured other landmarks. Belgium became the first hosts not to advance from their group, a fate embraced by Switzerland and Austria in 2008 and one that must be feared by Poland and Ukraine this time.
The soul went out of Euro 2000 in one country with the Belgian failure; the guests still wanted to party but the organisers wished to go to sleep. There were shades of England about the other hosts, Holland, who reached the semi-finals only to fall on penalties again, after previous shoot-out defeats to Denmark (1992), France (1996) and Brazil (1998).
Holland's conquerors were Italy, also shoot-out strugglers in the past, but they would fall despite this success. It was the French who ended Spain's run, back in Bruges. It was the French who edged out Portugal, whose players set a trend of exits in disgrace with a near riot after a correctly awarded penalty in extra time played under the 'golden goal"' rule. And it was the French who, 13 seconds from losing the final, broke the Italian spirit and snatched the crown with another golden goal.
This tournament belonged to the French, but go back further and in more than one way the whole competition was their creation. Which makes it appropriate that my route to Poland now takes me to Paris, for a look at both past and future for England and for the European Championship.