McClaren's gambles backfire
So Steve McClaren's stay of execution was to last just five short days.
Try as he might, the soon to be former England manager could not cover up his tactical flaws that have cost this once proud nation their place in the Euro 2008 finals and while the final chapter of his brief and often painful story will go down as the most dramatic games this sparkling new stadium will ever host, its legacy could be catastrophic for the future of English football.
Not even a stunning comeback from two goals behind at the break was enough for McClaren and his team as a 77th minute winner from Mladen Petric condemned England to the international scrapheap and with it, the inquest into the demise of the country who gave football to the world begins in earnest.
The manager's resolution in the face of his demise was impressive, with his determination not to resign both curious and blatantly forlorn after such a setback. 'I will not discuss my future,' he told the media pack, baying for blood after this disastrous evening. 'The time to reflect is in the future and we will do that in the next few days.
'The pain I feel after this defeat is indescribable. We have let the nation down, but I can have no complaints. I said judge me after the 12 game campaign and in the final analysis, we don't deserve to be at the European Championship finals.
'We made too many mistakes in this game and while I stand by my decision to pick Scott Carson in goal, he was at fault for one of those. I was surprised how easily we were beaten because Croatia looked like scoring every time we went forward. Still, as the manager, I take full responsibility for this defeat.'
On a night when a point would do for England, their first half showing was that of a side who were intent on getting their manager sacked, with their so-called 'world class performers' such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard looking more like non-league players having an off-day.
Indeed, it was not until the chief marketing icon of the aforementioned and much lambasted competition made his belated entry at half-time that England began to rally and David Beckham was the only player who deserved better than this embarrassing demise.
Those who have written that this brilliant footballer is merely a walking advertisement in a generation of plastic celebrities fail to appreciate just what he has brought to the English game in the last decade. His mere presence lifted the crowd and his energy and delivery on the right flank was of a quality McClaren's first pick, Shaun Wright-Phillips, can only produce on a PlayStation game.
Beckham's pinpoint pass to set-up Crouch for the equaliser that should have sealed England's qualification was a touch of pure class and it was a shame for the LA Galaxy star that the rest of his team mates were not good enough to capitalise on his enthusiasm and brilliance.
This was Becks' 99th international cap and as he took a bow to all four corners of Wembley at the end, he knew it would probably be his last. England will not be lucky enough to see his like again for some time and the FA should put on a game that ensures he collects the century.
If only the same tribute could be paid to McClaren, whose decision to change his goalkeeper and stick Scott Carson between the sticks for his competitive debut, not to mention his shock move to pick Wright-Phillips ahead of Beckham, ensuring this would be his final game as England coach unless he got the result he needed.
Some may call his tactical switches bold or brave, yet the truth was they were huge gambles against a side who, although already qualified for Euro 2008, were more than capable to denying England the point they required to join them.
The sight of the heavens opening an hour before kick-off and the already appalling Wembley pitch struggling to cope with the soaking it was receiving meant this game had the potential to develop into a lottery and that is the last thing McClaren needed having already gambled so much with his team selection.
So when Niko Kranjcar opted to take a speculative long-range shot after just eight minutes and Carson allowed it to slip through his grasp and into the back of the net, McClaren's heart must have sunk lower than at any point in his brief and often turbulent reign as England boss. England's fate appeared to be sealed as Ivicia Olic waltzed through a defence that had never played together before to double Croatia's lead.
McClaren's move to replace Gareth Barry and Shaun Wright-Phillips with Jermain Defoe and the much-missed Beckham at half-time was an admission that he had got his original starting eleven horribly wrong and it needed just eleven second half minutes to reap rewards.
The mere presence of Beckham lifted the crowd and when Defoe's shirt was pulled in the box, the referee handed England the penalty lifeline they craved. Lampard's spot kick filled Wembley with hope that was never there in the first half and it seemed as if the fairytale comeback could be on.
Then, Beckham made his mark with the pass that set up Crouch's leveller and with that, England appear to have averted disaster. That was until Petric blasted his winner past the helpless Carson and McClaren was forced to finish what will surely be his final press conference as England boss with applause ringing around the room.
You won't be surprised to hear it was not for him as, before he finished talking to the Sunday newspapers, Croatian boss Slaven Bilic entered the room and drew an ovation from the Croat media.
'There is not much wrong with English football,' claimed a polite Bilic. 'This was the toughest group you could have and England were part of an amazing match tonight. We deserved to win, but England played well.
'Still, we proved in this game that we are as good as England and I read a report saying no Croatia player would get into the England team. I say wake up, wake up. Honestly, we showed we are much better than some people think.'
There was some sympathy looking at McClaren as he fronted up to the ultimate failure, but if you put yourself in this big pool, drowning is not an option. The absence of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen was a hammer blow ahead of this game, but his team selections backfired and for that, he has to be replaced.
Just for the record, the press box was not a scene of joy at the demise of an England coach they have undermined from day one. When push and shove collide, their summer holidays in 2008 and the prestige that goes with reporting on a major tournament was on the line on this soaking Wembley night and while few of them like or respect McClaren, these Englishmen want to see their country succeed.
The tragedy is that while McClaren seemed like the least horrible option compared to Sam Allardyce when Phil Scolari turned down the Football Association's advances in the summer of 2006, he has come up short time and again in a qualifying campaign that was torturous at its beginning and end.
At least the new man who will take charge knows he can't take England any lower.
MAN OF THE MATCH: David Beckham: He alone tried to lift England into the Euro 2008 finals and if this was his final game, he goes out in a blaze of personal glory.
PITCH HORROR: This may be the best stadium in the world in terms of facilities and grandeur, yet the FA have to pay off the vast debt they incurred in its construction so pointless commercial exercises like promoting American football is required. The pitch was a mess after the recent NFL game here and a disgrace to the Wembley brand.
BRIDGE OF SIGHS: Amid the Wembley chaos, left-back Wayne Bridge produced one of the worst performances from an England player in many a year. He even tried to cap his incompetence with a second half own goal as his effort looped onto his Scott Carson's crossbar.
BATTLE OF THE BROLLY: While soppy England coach McClaren sheltered under an umbrella early on, his opposite number from braved the elements. Slaven Bilic showed he was a real man.
CROATIAN VENUM: The Football Association must have felt as if their move to give members of the British military a chance to parade on the pitch prior to kick-off was a guaranteed winner, yet the hoards of visiting fans greeted them with a torrent of abuse and single finger salutes won't have gone down well.
VERDICT: Sympathy for McClaren will be hard to find, yet this was a night when England's players were shown up to be second rate. Gerrard and Lampard were poor throughout and they are the stars expected to shine when their country needs them. Let the post mortem begin.