“At last year’s World Cup I counted at least 13 mentions of a ‘golden generation’: Morocco, Australia, Senegal, Switzerland, England, Japan, Spain, Belgium, Croatia, Canada, Ecuador, the USA and France (though not, oddly, the winners Argentina),” writes Jason Duvall. “When did this phrase become an established part of the football lexicon, and who first used it to describe the England team of the early-2000s?”
The idea of a golden generation has long since passed into cliché, but the phrase was used more sparingly – and with genuine excitement – when it first appeared. Anecdotal evidence suggests it was first used to describe the Portugal players who won the under-20 World Cup in either 1989 and 1991 (or both, in the case of the precocious João Pinto). When they graduated to the senior team, that group reached the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final in successive European Championships between 1996 and 2004. The most celebrated of them all, Luis Figo, was still around when Portugal made it to the World Cup semi-final in 2006.
It’s impossible to say when the phrase was first used anywhere, ever, but a look through the newspaper archive suggests that, in England at least, it was popularised when talking about Portugal before and during Euro 2000. Here’s one example, from Amy Lawrence’s Observer feature on Luis Figo:
For a decade Portugal have been classic underachievers. Figo belongs to a golden generation, an exceptional group crowned the best in Europe at under-17 level and world champions at under-20. With the inventive Rui Costa and the twinkle-toed João Pinto, when they joined up with Vítor Baía, Fernando Couto and Paulo Sousa (who were only a year or so older than the wonderkids) in the senior squad, Portugal expected greatness. Instead people have been scratching their heads to work out why they haven’t matured as an international force.
They matured over the next few weeks, at least until the thundering collective meltdown when they were eliminated in the semi-finals. In their opening game, when Portugal came from 2-0 down to beat England 3-2, their starting XI included seven players who had won the under-20 World Cup: Figo, Rui Costa, Pinto, Couto, Jorge Costa, Abel Xavier and Paulo Bento. Two other winners, Sousa and Nuno Capucho, started the final group game against Germany. Between them, those nine players, who were all born between 1969 and 1972, won 602 caps for Portugal.
Some other key players were born in the same period but did not play at the under-20 World Cups: Vítor Baía (80 caps), Ricardo Sa Pinto (45) and Dimas Teixeira (44).
Portugal’s smooth, relaxed football was one of the features of Euro 2000. Eventually they lost 2-1 to eventual winners France in the semi-final, with Zinedine Zidane scoring a golden goal from the penalty spot, and lost their heads in a manner that made Fulham’s reaction at Old Trafford last weekend seem restrained by comparison. “The golden generation were shattered last night by a golden goal,” was the start of Glenn Moore’s match report in the Independent.
There is occasional use of the phrase “golden generation” in the archive before Euro 2000. Teams described thus include the Netherlands at Euro 92 (“the swansong for what the Dutch call their golden generation,” said the Birmingham Post) and Brazil in 1998 (“I belong to a golden generation with players like Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Denilson,” said Roberto Carlos before the final). The phrase was also used posthumously when talking about Netherlands 1974, Brazil 1982 and the Yugoslavia team that preceded Portugal as under-20 world champions in 1987.
The phrase became part of the vernacular at the perfect time, when everybody was getting naively excited about the best group of young English players to emerge in decades. Adam Crozier, the FA’s chief executive, had a background in advertising and is widely credited/blamed for first calling them a golden generation. It certainly fits the profile, and Crozier was consistently effusive about England’s medium-term prospects. “Other European countries are jealous of the wealth of young players we have at the moment,” he said after Sven-Göran Eriksson became England manager. “I’m sure when Sven agreed to become our national coach, he looked at the young talent we have and saw that as one of the biggest positives in taking the job.”
A few months earlier, the day before Kevin Keegan quit as England manager in the toilets, Crozier set England the target of winning the 2006 World Cup in Germany. “2006 isn’t plucked out of nowhere,” he said. “It’s a timetable tied in with the players coming through the academy system ready to meet the Owens and Coles absolutely at their peak.”
The phrase was only used intermittently for the next few years, eventually becoming more commonplace in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup. Crozier, in other words, probably gets a bit of a raw deal for supposedly putting too much pressure on that group of players. With the caveat that we don’t have access to every single newspaper archive, the first time the phrase is directly attributed to Crozier is in the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mirror on 23 November 2007.
The archive did throw up one, long-forgotten mention as early as 1997. In a profile of Paul Scholes for the Press Association, before England’s World Cup qualifier against Moldova, Rob King wrote that “[Glenn] Hoddle can hardly believe his luck to have recruited such another gem on top of United products David Beckham, the Nevilles and Butt, plus Tottenham’s Sol Campbell – a real golden generation.”
If you ever want a really obscure quiz question, King was an improbable connection between the golden generation and the Guildford Four. He died in November 2000, aged just 46. The last work he did was in Turin, as the Daily Star’s football correspondent, reporting on a 1-0 defeat for England’s emerging golden generation.
The cross-border sacking double
“Scott Parker has been sacked from two different jobs in two different countries in the same season,” tweets Alex. “Surely this can’t have been done too often?”
Given their unique business model, Watford were our first port of call in researching this answer. Distressingly, and to our great surprise, it doesn’t appear that any of their managers received P45s in two languages in the same season. But we did find an example from elsewhere.
In Italy, in the summer of 2017, Milan were expected to build on a reasonable first season under Vincenzo Montella. Wrong! Milan won four of the first five league games but then lost their way completely, and Montella was sacked at the end of November.
A month later he arrived in Seville to replace Eduardo Berizzo. Montella’s Sevilla famously put José Mourinho’s Manchester United out of the Champions League – football heritage and all that – but they lost to Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and were plugged 5-0 by Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final on 21 April. Six days later, Sevilla lost 2-1 at Levante, their seventh La Liga game without victory, and Montella was banished to the land of trivia columns.
“I have just read this story on the Bradford Telegraph & Argus site,” wrote Luke Thorne in 2008. “Are there any other examples of clubs so blatantly lying to their fans? Has any side just invented results or made-up heroic performances?”
Sean DeLoughry wrote in to tell us about St Patrick’s Athletic, who weren’t so much lying to their fans as lying to themselves. The 2001-02 season was an eventful one for Athletic. It began when they were deducted nine points for fielding Paul Marney, who, thanks to some paperwork errors, was ineligible for the first three games of the campaign. An appeal against the penalty was later successful.
St Pats, though, failed to learn their lesson and, when just two points behind leaders Shelbourne with two games in hand, were docked 15 points in March 2002 for failing to properly register Ugandan international Charles Mbabazi Livingstone for the first five games of the season. St Pats claimed it was a mere clerical error and that they had gained nothing by it, but the league stood firm – their decision was final. At the end of the season, the club finished 10 points behind Shelbourne – without the deduction they would have won the title. But …
“St Pats declined to accept the decision, and awarded themselves a trophy,” mailed Sean. “Pats’ programme and website still claim their phantom league title, though the Football Association of Ireland, and everyone else seem to think otherwise.”
Can you help?
“This week we’ve had the Seagulls v the Mariners, but I wondered if there have been any other recent or particularly memorable examples of when similarly appropriately nicknamed teams come up against each other?” wonders Rich Cunningham.
“I was recently visiting family in Northern Ireland and went to see Larne FC play at their home ground, Inver Park. The nearby St Cedma’s Church stands directly beside. And the church tower is visible behind the stand. Google Maps shows the walking distance between church and stadium as 0.2 miles. Could this be the closest stadium-to-church relationship in football?” asks Ryan Peter Reed.
“Inverness Caledonian Thistle are in the Scottish Cup semi-finals, where they’re drawn against lower-division Falkirk and will be favourites to advance,” begins Ali Murdoch. “This despite having been knocked out in the fourth round by Queen’s Park, who were then disqualified for fielding an ineligible player, and Inverness were reinstated. Has any team won a major trophy after having been knocked out?”
“I noticed that in the first Premier League season, 1992-93, all 22 teams played a return fixture on the weekend of 12 September, having played the first game on 18-19 August. What was the reason for completing these fixtures so early in the season, and so close to each other?” asks Nick D.
“I was on the Wikipedia page for England’s men’s national team and discovered that we have never played Bolivia or Venezuela,” writes Will Hughes. “This isn’t particularly interesting, but I was wondering what the two most notable sides never to have clashed were? I’m hoping it’s something ridiculous.”