Mike Rowbottom

Oddly, I was looking at Sir Stanley Matthews’ autobiography early yesterday - The Way It Was, a fine book stuffed with precious detail that I have read twice and plan to enjoy again (A doctor writes…).

To be clear - I was reading in the usual manner. The oddity lay in the coincidence of happening on a passage where the "Wizard of Dribble" - as I suspect nobody but journalists ever called him - describes playing in one of his early games for England as a 20-year-old at White Hart Lane in 1935.

"In the early stages of the game, I received a great pass from Eddie Hapgood and took off down the right wing," Sir Stanley wrote.

"I saw Münzenberg the German left back coming towards me and ran straight towards him, full of confidence.

"Having taken the ball right up to him, I body swerved and passed him on my outside, only I didn’t have the ball at my feet any more…"

In disbelief, the young Matthews caught up with his opponent and tackled him - only to find himself swinging at fresh air. "Having shown me the ball, as I lunged at him, he quickly dragged the ball back with the sole of his boot before playing a ball inside…"

As it happened, England won 3-0 on that occasion – which was back in the days when England didn’t lose to Germany. But Sir Stanley had nevertheless experienced something of the quintessential German footballing virtues in that game - and had come away feeling like a loser.

Sir Stanley Matthews, pictured shaking hands with Lord Roseberry before England's match against Scotland in 1957, learned a hard lesson playing in one of his early international matches against Germany ©Getty Images
Sir Stanley Matthews, pictured shaking hands with Lord Roseberry before England's match against Scotland in 1957, learned a hard lesson playing in one of his early international matches against Germany ©Getty Images

Down the years, recent years that is, England have been Munzenberged by Germany at what feels like every serious point and turn.

Which is why, on the day when Germany’s defending World Cup champions failed to qualify from their group at the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia following a 2-0 defeat by South Korea, most England fans - perhaps more than any others, although Brazil’s might run them close after their 7-1 semi-final defeat by Germany on their home turf four years ago - are probably feeling quietly thrilled.

Yes, the grinding 1-0 England win over Germany at the 2000 European Championships, where an inconsistent and misfiring side beat a slightly worse side. Neither made it out of the group stages..

Yes, the 5-1 win in the Munich World Cup qualifier a year later. At the 2002 World Cup, England went out in the quarter-finals and Germany reached the final.

The telling matches have all gone the other way. The 1990 World Cup semi-final, on penalties. The 1996 European Championships semi-final at the old Wembley Stadium - again, won by Germany on penalties after an effort from Gareth Southgate - whatever happened to him? - was saved. 

The 2010 World Cup finals, where a Frank Lampard goal that would have pulled England back to 2-2 in their round-of-16 match was disallowed, despite bouncing more than a yard behind the line, and Germany romped on to win 4-1.

Anyone of my generation, or an older one, will still have a residual feeling that the natural order of things as regards these two fine footballing nations has been warped and undermined since…well, since the 1966 World Cup final, essentially.

England’s passage to that fabled victory at Wembley - even though they had to earn it twice, as their manager Sir Alf Ramsey saw it - was the first football I ever knowingly laid eyes on, and it established for me, and, tragically, an entire generation of England followers, a false conviction that we knew...The Way It Was.

Germany's fans were left in shock after the World Cup holders failed to qualify from the group states in Russia ©Getty Images
Germany's fans were left in shock after the World Cup holders failed to qualify from the group states in Russia ©Getty Images

But It Wasn’t. Two years later I had stern looks from my grandpa as I loudly uttered, still with a touch of experimentation, the F-word after watching – on the small television balanced on his morning room cupboard -  England lose 1-0 in a friendly against West Germany in Hanover.

It was England’s first defeat by a German team since the two nations had first begun playing each other in 1930.

Just over two years later, in June 1970, the balance effectively tipped as England - crucially missing their food-poisoned keeper Gordon Banks - contrived to turn a 2-0 lead with 20 minutes to go into a 3-2 extra-time defeat in their Mexico World Cup quarter-final at Leon. It wasn’t just The Likely Lads who couldn’t bear to think about that afterwards.

Two years further down the line, England were thoroughly beaten by West Germany at Wembley in the first leg of the European Nations Cup - not unluckily, but comprehensively, by a mixture of English-style solidity and soaring talent.

The old saying "the first cut is the deepest" did not apply on this occasion. What turned out to be the last England outing for their hat-trick hero of the 1966 World Cup final, Sir Geoff Hurst, was a humiliation.

Writing in The Observer, the inimitable Hugh McIlvanney had this to say: "No Englishman can ever again warm himself with the old assumption that, on the football field if nowhere else, the Germans are an inferior race.

"Last night at Wembley a West German team playing with grace and spirit and an absolute commitment to attack administered the most thorough defeat ever inflicted on Sir Alf Ramsey’s England on their own ground."

The die was cast. Germany were like England – only better. Somehow losing to them hurt more than losing to any other nation at key moments in big matches.

Sorry, just let me check that again. World Cup 2002 quarter-final – Ronaldinho wondergoal, England manager Sven Goran Eriksson inert on the sidelines…it was bad. But hey, it was Brazil.

European Championships 2004 quarter final – beaten 6-5 on penalties by hosts Portugal. Not good. But Wayne Rooney had been brilliant before having to go off with a foot injury. Honour maintained. No, it was a frustration, but no humiliation.

That seems to be the nub of it. Germany, down the years, have been so good they have frustrated and, purely through their own strength of tactics and character, humiliated other sides.

Suffice to say the reaction from Brazil to Germany’s premature World Cup exit has been uninhibited. One tweet, issued by Fox Sports Brasil, was just one long laugh.

Better beware now. Germany’s coach, Joachim Low, may go. But all those youngsters with whom he won the Confederations Cup held in Russia last year as a World Cup dry run will soon be back in the first team – and normal service will surely be resumed.

The relief from other nations, and particularly from England as they press on to knock-out stages bereft of their perennial rivals, is a measure of how formidable are Germany’s footballers.

But let’s enjoy this guilty pleasure while it lasts.