Belfast Telegraph

England can't mess up this time, says Steven Gerrard

By Simon Stone

Steven Gerrard doesn't do Churchillian.

But if the England skipper was going to make a grand speech ahead of tonight's crucial World Cup qualifier with Poland, November 21, 2007 would be a central component.

Roy Hodgson is adamant that shattering 3-2 defeat by Croatia at Wembley has not been mentioned in the build-up to a game England must win to guarantee reaching next year's World Cup Finals in Brazil.

It doesn't need mentioning for Gerrard.

He has only to start thinking about an international career that will extend beyond Sir Bobby Charlton's in length at kick-off to be reminded of it.

"Yeah, a big massive picture of the Croatia game in 2007," said Gerrard, when asked what memories he will draw on for inspiration.

"It's a memory I'll have to take to the grave with me. One of the lowest moments of my international journey."

Six years on, the narrative still takes some believing.

England required only a draw to confirm their place at Euro 2008, against a team who had little incentive given they were already confirmed finalists.

Coach Steve McClaren took the bold decision to select goalkeeper Scott Carson for his first competitive international, a move that backfired almost instantly as the keeper let Nico Kranjcar's long-range shot slip under him.

Croatia were two ahead before England mounted a spectacular fightback, Frank Lampard and Peter Crouch scoring the goals that looked certain to claim the draw required.

Incredibly, substitute Mladen Petric grabbed the winner 13 minutes from time, as England were hit on the break chasing a third goal they did not need.

"It is one of those memories that keeps coming back and coming back," said Gerrard.

"It wasn't about nerves. We under-performed.

"Everyone knows I'm not the most vocal captain. I won't be roaring and bawling.

"But I have already spoken to the lads about that feeling.

"I'd never try to scare a young lad but it's important they are aware what's at stake. We need to seize this moment.

"We want to look back at this with fond memories and with a smile rather than the way I do about (Euro) 2008."

Gerrard's acute sense of failure is probably exacerbated by the knowledge he was wearing the captain's armband that night, just as he will tonight.

This time around though, he is doing the job by right, rather than the fact that John Terry was missing through injury.

Wayne Rooney is among those who believe Gerrard's captaincy credentials were overlooked for far too long.

Both McClaren and Fabio Capello preferred Terry. And when the Chelsea man was stood down for the first time following his alleged dalliance with the girlfriend of former team-mate Wayne Bridge, the Italian plumped for Rio Ferdinand.

Yet it is clear Gerrard's chest swells with the additional responsibility and the feeling of euphoria at a job well done would be heightened in victory too.

"I'd be the proudest man in the country if we get the win we're after," he said.

"It would be a big personal achievement for me to say I was the real captain through a campaign and led the lads to Brazil.

"I would be delighted."

As it could well be Gerrard's last tilt at a major prize, the 33-year-old will be giving everything to ensure the last barrier to Brazil is removed.

He is not worried about the 18,000-strong Polish contingent, nor the potential for nerves affecting his younger team-mates.

But 2007 focuses the mind. A reminder things can go wrong.

And Gerrard is anxious not to walk out of Wembley a failure for a second time.

"I'm very confident," he said.

"The emergence of some really bright young players has strengthened the squad. The manager could have put two teams out against Montenegro.

"But I do remember Croatia. When we got the equaliser that night I thought we'd go on and win. It just shows that although everyone fancies us to win this game anything can happen.

"We have to be prepared for that."

Poland coach Waldemar Fornalik certainly beleves his country's massive Wembley following will provide additional motivation tonight.

"It will be a significant impact to have so many fans in the stands," said Fornalik

"Polish fans have a track record of lifting the team in good times and bad."

Skipper Jakub Blaszczykowski shared similar sentiments, recalling the massive away support at the Aviva Stadium, when Poland were beaten by the Republic of Ireland in February, as evidence of what was always likely to be a healthy following.

"Against Ireland, most of the fans were Poles and we expect the same at Wembley," said Blaszczykowski.

"I am happy to hear about so many Poles coming to the match. We want to entertain them and get a very good result at Wembley.

"Hopefully we will play well enough to send them back home smiling."

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