LONDON (Reuters) - They were billed as a golden generation of footballers who would end 40-plus years of failure but 90 minutes of uninspired kick-and-run in the Wembley mud confirmed a brutal truth to the England team and their fans.
Wednesday night’s abject 3-2 home defeat by Croatia not only buried England’s hopes of reaching next year’s European Championship finals, but showed once and for all that Steve McClaren’s men were more also-rans than pacesetters.
The loss to competent rather than inspired opponents led to the sacking of head coach McClaren some 10 hours later and a frenzy of navel-gazing as the nation that gave the game to the world tried to come to terms with the failure and explain it.
Theories were ten-a-penny for the flop but all the pundits agreed on at least one point as the ramifications of the defeat were digested -- England are just not good enough.
Despite driving rain on a treacherous pitch, Croatia commanded the ball with ease rather than as the slippery bar of soap it seemed to be for most of the England players who appeared happier to hoof it forward then bring it under control.
It is a depressingly familiar story for England fans.
Yet this was no rag-bag bunch of Sunday morning public house team hackers or even the 1970s England players who failed to reach successive World Cups.
Like the players that followed Alf Ramsey’s 1966 World Cup winners, today’s so-called golden generation of Michael Owen, Steve Gerrard, David Beckham and Frank Lampard look destined to finish their careers by missing out on international winners’ medals which generally divide the great from the good.
The hopes and dreams of a decade ago have come to nought -- in short, the golden boys have turned out to be tin men with no heart.
Many have blamed McClaren for their failure but a glance at England’s recent soccer history suggests that a man who only occupied the red-hot seat for 15 months is more the fall-guy then the true villain of the peace.
The reality is that apart from the 1990 World Cup in Italy, when a Bobby Robson side inspired by the mercurial Paul Gascoigne reached the last four, England have never really threatened in a big tournament over the past few decades.
McClaren’s successor Sven Goran Eriksson reached quarter-finals at successive World Cups and the 2004 European Championship but on each occasion the lack of technique and an apparent game plan put paid to their campaigns.
A “root and branch” investigation has now been set up by the Football Association to pinpoint the causes of the malaise before another tournament appearance goes begging.
They could do worse than examine a structure which in many ways is a source of huge pride to the English game.
The Premier League is the richest, most-watched competition in world football but its success in attracting the very best talent from around the world may have ironically played a large part in the failure of the national team.
The leading clubs -- and many of the strugglers too -- have increasingly looked abroad rather than at home to fill gaps in their teams, often because there are cheaper and apparently hungrier options to be found overseas.
League leaders Arsenal are a case in point. They only have a couple of English players in their first-team squad and only one of those, Theo Walcott, regularly plays in the top flight.
European Union law precludes quotas being drawn up to ensure that young English players are blooded in the domestic league so that situation is not likely to change in the near future.
McClaren’s successor will have one advantage, though, as he takes on a job described by many observers as the biggest in world football -- after Wednesday’s reality check he will know exactly the size of the task ahead.
England may yet have cause to be grateful to Croatia for that.