Beckham only serves to expose England U-turns

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The Independent Football

It was as if nothing had changed. Except, given the bitter context that England are on the verge of failing to make a major championship rather than the recent tradition of failing when they actually do make it there, everything had.

England started with a midfield of Joe Cole, Lampard, Gerrard and Beckham. A total of 265 caps between them. The Golden Quartet for the Golden Generation (with Goldenballs). The midfield that took England into the last World Cup. And playing as if they were strangers. The four most talented individuals. Playing as individuals, playing for themselves, never mind each other, never mind their team or country. Familiarity did not breed content.

When Lampard and Cole ran into each other – dislodging the latter's contact lens – it was just symptomatic of the lack of vision, the lack of imagination and communication. It was symptomatic of the malaise England are in. This match was, when arranged, supposed to be an experimental friendly to blow the herald's bugle ahead of England's procession to next summer's European Championship in Austria and Switzerland.

And when Beckham spent the final few minutes of the first-half playing at right-back – with Micah Richards a full 60 yards ahead of him, even for Scott Carson's goal-kicks, it was symptomatic of an even more familiar failing: indulging a player who is not fit and desperately trying to find fitness. And indulged by a coach who did not have the nerve, or the wit, to see through his pledges. It had nothing to do with fluid formations or team play. Or vision.

The sight of Beckham out on a bitterly cold November evening, blowing hard to earn his 98th cap – alongside Sol Campbell, another dropped by McClaren only to be brought back – simply showed that England have gone nowhere. Two U-turns and they are back in the same place as they started.

McClaren said he was "looking to go in a different direction" when he first excluded Beckham 18 months ago. Goodness knows what that direction was because the team that he is now pinning his slim hopes of survival on – although in reality that team is Israel – is disturbingly reminiscent of the one that he inherited from his former boss, Sven Goran Eriksson. Evolution? Revolution? No, this looked remarkably like devolution.

On the bench for the start he had Ashley Young, who came on at half-time for his debut, David Bentley, Stewart Downing. All young wingers. All still unknown quantities at this level. Why? Certainly if Downing, by now, isn't deemed good enough he should be out.

When he took over McClaren talked boldly of "pace and penetration" and "directness and people who can beat players". We know that's not Beckham. The former captain has the best delivery of crosses of any England player and, although it was from his corner that Peter Crouch scored with his header, another set-piece goal (sound familiar?), even that weapon was in scant evidence last night.

Beckham's inclusion was always going to be the most contentious – not least because of his profile and the brouhaha McClaren made in dumping him – but also, as if it hadn't been said enough already, because he now plays for LA Galaxy.

And the 32-year-old has made just four competitive starts and played just 450 minutes of football since moving to the United States in the summer. He is also recovering from a knee injury. His last club match? A run-out against a Hollywood celebrity XI which followed two substitute appearances. His next club match? A showpiece friendly in Australia followed by one in New Zealand. It kind of sums it all up.

Both of those games will be called off by the organisers if Beckham can't play. At times England have appeared to have been run under the same kind of rules and, yet again last night, it was his name that garnered the biggest cheer among the supporters, well the Austrians at least. They were more than happy with his inclusion although they may have been slightly more puzzled by his marginal contribution.

But he wasn't alone in that. Gerrard appeared out of sorts, as did Cole, with both departing after 45 minutes. Cole, too often, slipped into the bad habits of old by trying to beat too many opponents, trying one trick too many. He slowed the impetus, when some was finally gained, while Lampard played as if Gerrard was not his midfield partner but someone he had been told to stand next to on the pitch at kick-off.

In the end Beckham was granted just over an hour. There were howls of derision from the fans – and maybe from a few sponsors and Euro organisers – as he was replaced. As things stand this morning they are unlikely to see him, or England, again, come next summer.

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