A packed out Wembley roared like one of those indomitable Three Lions to greet England’s new messiah. Kevin Keegan lapped up the applause as he strode into the spring sunshine, his new-look team fired up to take on Poland in a crucial Euro 2000 qualifier, this was a new dawn for an England team looking to the future.
His reign as England manager would come to an unceremonious end in the Wembley toilets just over 18 months later, but on this day in 1999, there was a fresh spring feel in the air as Wembley bubbled with excitement on seeing their new side, who had grown stale under previous manager Glenn Hoddle.
Keegan, fiercely patriotic and a brilliant footballer in his own right, instantly commanded respect from the dressing room. With David Beckham, Tony Adams and David Seaman, this was not a squad lacking leaders, but it was Keegan’s subtle touches that got his international managerial career off to a flyer.
“Go out and drop a few hand grenades,” the new boss told his troops. It was a message the legendary former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly had once delivered to a young Keegan.
Keegan must have been pitching himself. This was his first game as England manager and 24-year-old Paul Scholes was hardly a player to respond to a rousing dressing room speech. Quiet and unassuming, he let his football do the talking and Keegan could have been forgiven for thinking those seven simple words may have gone straight over his head ahead of kick-off.
Scholes started in central midfield alongside debutant Tim Sherwood, whose athletic defensive capabilities allowed the Manchester United man to bomb forward into the box. Even the manager couldn’t have foreseen how productive that tactical tweak would be for his side. Having had a sequence of poor results under the previous boss and with qualification in doubt, the tension was palpable at kick-off but trepidation quickly turned to joy in the Wembley sunshine.
Just 10 minutes in, Keegan’s plan came to fruition. Andy Cole, who he had recalled to the side, linked up with strike partner Alan Shearer, who in turn fed the ball through to the onrushing Scholes to dink it over the onrushing keeper. Wembley erupted. Keegan allowed himself a wry smile on the bench.
Midway through the first half his smile turned to sheer delight as Scholes doubled his tally. The Manchester United trio of Cole, Becham and Scholes combined as the midfielder nodded home having found himself unmarked in the box. For younger fans who can only remember Scholes lying deep in midfield and spraying passes, this energetic goalscorer will come as somewhat of a surprise.
Poland pulled one back thanks to captain Jerzy Brzeczek and were a genuine threat throughout the game but England once again turned to their goalscoring midfielder to seal all three points. Not since Ian Wright against San Marino in 1993 had a player scored a hat-trick for the Three Lions but Scholes changed all that as he momentarily transformed into prime Duncan Ferguson to powerfully head home an Alan Shearer flick-on and seal his hat-trick. Glorious.
Keegan afforded himself the short-lived congratulations and was effusive about his midfield talent. For him it was a job well done and a step towards getting the job on a permanent basis. For Scholes, six months later he would score a vital brace against Scotland which took England to Euro 2000, but this was one of the highlights of an international career sadly cut short.
As pre-match team talks go, telling your midfield maestro to "drop a few hand grenades" on the opposition, in your first game as England manager and then watching from the sidelines as he scores a hat-trick, that is pretty special.