After being criticised for their lack of imagination against Italy and Moldova they were last night accused of possessing less flair than South Africa, their largely unknown and unheralded opponents at Old Trafford tomorrow.
The speaker was admittedly biased - it was Clive Barker, South Africa's coach.
Barker confirmed his reputation for plain speaking. "You have a problem with flair and I think we have more talented players. We have more players who are comfortable on the ball. You have better organisation and strength. In the long run I believe talent will prevail, you need flair to break teams down.
"I have a lot of respect for English football but I am not in awe of it. In the 50s and 60s I thought England were going to be one of football's great world powers but you have under-achieved."
The latter comment echoed Howard Wilkinson's thoughts when he launched the FA's Charter for Quality on Monday.
As playmakers, South Africa can offer John "Shoes" Moshoeu, so named for his dancing feet, and Dr Khumalo, who once had a trial with Aston Villa. They also have an attacking central defender in Mark Fish and full-backs with positive intent. England can offer Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham and Paul Scholes: one past his best, two yet to reach it.
All should feature tomorrow but only Gascoigne, who looks like a boxer on the eve of a bout with his newly muscled lean frame, is sure to start. Nearly a decade after he rejected Manchester United in favour of Tottenham, Gascoigne will finally play a home match at Old Trafford tomorrow.
That much was confirmed by Glenn Hoddle yesterday. He added: "This is not a make or break game for Paul. He has been out for a long time. If he gets through 90 minutes that will be a bonus, that will be progress. If he plays 90 minutes on song that will be the icing on the cake."
With so many United players in contention an early team announcement might help the gate, which looks like being well short of capacity, but, apart from naming Gascoigne, Hoddle is not going to break his usual custom of waiting until just before kick-off.
One obvious choice is Scholes, if only as a substitute. It is the ideal time and place to give the ginger-haired United player a first taste of international football. Beckham is also likely to be on the bench, waiting for an opportunity to fill Gascoigne's shoes as the conductor of Hoddle's orchestra. Referring to both club and country, he said: "I'm not looking for the responsibility, but if the manager picked me to play in the middle I'd be well happy with that. I feel comfortable wherever I play and ready to play in there now."
One player who desperately wants to be involved is Alan Shearer. This is partly his innate desire to play for England. While not prepared to be drawn on the high profile withdrawals of Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, he said: "I would be very upset if anyone suggested I did not want to play for England. I want to play every game."
He is also motivated by the location. Earlier this month he suffered a constant stream of vitriol when Newcastle played at Old Trafford (Shearer has twice rejected them). Shearer said he did not know what reception he would get, and it did not bother him, but it is sure that he would hate to appear to be hiding.
Hoddle said he hoped Shearer would not be barracked - "this is about supporting England." However, that did not save John Barnes at Wembley and Gary Pallister at Leeds from being abused. A fair response is important to Old Trafford's hopes of staging England matches when Wembley is being rebuilt - as is a good crowd.
Nicky Butt sat out training with a slight hamstring strain. Darren Eadie has an inflamed tendon and Rob Lee took a knock on his leg during training. Lee should be fit, but if he is not Hoddle still has 22 players to choose from.Reuse content