James Lawton: Lessons have to be learnt after this epic humiliation
Steve McClaren stood in the dock, head down, a defendant without a hope, without a defence and there was no act of charity or gush of doubletalk that could take him away from that place which so many outside the offices of the Football Association always feared was his destiny.
Yet there was a wider indictment, too. It had to be levelled against all of English football as Croatia, with nothing more to play for than a demonstration of their sharp competence at this level of the game, turned what was supposed to be England's formal passage into the finals of next year's European Championship into a nightmare of failed technique and organisation – and, worst of all, as Wembley was consumed with as much disbelief as anger – spirit.
When McClaren tore up still another battle plan at half-time, yanking off Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gareth Barry for Jermain Defoe and David Beckham, there was one last, almost surreal prospect of redemption – one perhaps unprecedented in the history of the national game.
It was that Beckham, even after he had exiled himself in the playpen of American soccer, might one last time stoke the legend of a player who had so often proved himself the star-spangled man for a small occasion.
This, however, was so much more than that – and no one could doubt the value of his contribution to a recovery from what threatened to be the most humiliating defeat since the part-timers of the United States helped knock England out of the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
Croatia, of course, are no band of amateurs but the ease with which they stripped down England in front of their own people promised to inflict a statement of outright bankruptcy – in the coach's dugout and out on the field.
It was a trial of all English pretensions to a place somewhere near the front rank of international football and then, when Frank Lampard converted the sort of penalty that is rarely awarded in today's game, 11 minutes into the second half, what had become unimaginable was suddenly the most outrageous possibility.
Somehow, England might just fight their way out of the disaster that came when Scott Carson, McClaren's gamble on youth over the dwindling nerve of Paul Robinson, spilt Niko Kranjcar's speculative shot into the back of the net in the eighth minute. And then, six minutes later, the great arch of Wembley could only mock the tragicomedy unfolding under what was supposed to be a symbol of impending glory.
England's defence was simply slashed apart; a fine, subtle run by Eduardo, a killing finish by Ivica Olic and McClaren's world was a place of unqualified despair. Here, it seemed, were the beginnings of the most damning statement about the England head coach's failure to impose minimum standards of method and composure.
There was surely no coming back from such a pulverising one-two assault. Carson must have felt that all colour and taste had gone from his life and infant career – and on the England bench there was a row of dead men, McClaren numb and lost.
His throw for survival at half-time was the act of a man admitting that he had just one last chance to make something of the job that paid £2.5m a year but was now lurching, sickeningly, on the very edge of viability. He was discarding, perhaps just before it was too late, the idea that it was reasonable to approach a game with an essentially defensive posture – a packed midfield built around the hope that from it would come enough striking threat from such as Steven Gerrard and Lampard.
By contrast, the Croats had attacked sleekly, with clean lines of counter-attack. Yet, somehow, there was this extraordinary pitch of the English spirit. Beckham, who soon enough would reveal a killing lack of pace that made it essential to deliver the ball to his feet, had at least one part to play.
He did it with a cross that took you all the way back to his buoyant youth at Old Trafford – an early, piercing cross which Peter Crouch, a lone and gallant forager in the first half of meltdown, controlled perfectly and shot home. Two-two – and there was life left in the carcass of the English game that under-achieved so long.
It was a wild and ultimately reckless hope and when Mladen Petric, a substitute who seemed to have inherited the anticlimax of his nation's desire for a famous victory at Wembley, drove past the resurrected Carson, we were back with the most damning verdict.
It was that McClaren, as it was always likely, had proved unequal to the task of moving England forward, of giving the team something like the drive and the shaping of performance so essential after the disappointments of the Sven Goran Eriksson regime.
The truth is that England would have been flattered with a place among the elite of Europe in Austria and Switzerland next summer. McClaren had moved to a point of salvation, but on what was it based? A weird collision of circumstances which reached a bizarre point when Guus Hiddink's Russia struck a post in the last minute in Tel Aviv last weekend.
One reality could not be avoided at Wembley last night. It was that England had neither the leadership nor the personnel or the sense of team to inflict themselves on the most important game some of the players would ever play – and, surely, Steve McClaren would ever coach.
The Croats, only an independent nation for a decade and a half, operated on an entirely higher level of football sophistication. They made the game look easy because they had played together, had a clear understanding of all their objectives.
England, which used to boast of owning a "golden generation", were quite something else. They were what happens when the wrong decisions keep being made.
Worst ever? England disasters
England 0 USA 1, 1950
When reports of this result began to filter home from the 1950 World Cup, one newspaper refused to believe it and stuck an extra 1 before England's 0.
England 1 Poland 1, 1973
England needed victory to reach the 1974 World Cup finals, but Jan "The Clown" Tomaszewski performed heroics at Wembley.
England 0 Denmark 1, 1983
Bobby Robson's first campaign as England manager ended in failure to reach the 1984 European Championship largely thanks to this defeat at Wembley. But Robson kept his job.
England 1 Sweden 2, 1992
Thomas Brolin, the striker turned vacuum-cleaner salesman, knocked Graham Taylor's side out of Euro 1992 – watched by the substituted Gary Lineker.
Netherlands 2 England 0, 1993
Did Taylor not like this – the collapse of his side's effort to reach USA '94. And, for a time, his reputation.
England 0 Germany 1, 2000
The last game at the old Wembley, Dietmar Hamann's daisy-trimmer – and an emotional Kevin Keegan's last game in charge.