When the Euro 2008 qualifying draw was made Group E, admitted Michael Owen yesterday, looked a section from which England should progress. "If we don't qualify," he said, "then the manager will hold up his hand and say, 'We should have qualified from this group.' I think everyone will do that."
The fixture list, Owen said, "basically boils down to three or four really important games". The key contenders, England, Croatia, Russia, had been "given 15 points before it's even started". Beat the small fry, take points off the big players, and qualification was assured. But England, Owen lamented, had failed to take the maximum from the smaller teams, and failed away from home against the bigger ones.
Owen added: "Everyone expected us [to qualify] but we have not picked up as many points as we should have. There's no hiding from the fact that we didn't get the results earlier in the campaign that we should have done. We have dropped points which could prove costly."
Indeed they have. The "15 points" Owen mentions should presumably have been acquired in the matches against Macedonia at home, and home and away against Estonia and Andorra. England drew at home to Macedonia. They then took one point from the "big" fixtures in Israel, Croatia and Russia.
Nevertheless Owen, like the other squad members speaking this week, insisted that Steve McClaren should not suffer the anticipated consequence should England, as seems likely, fail to qualify.
"Every player would back the manager," he said. "He has been with us for a while and we think he is the right man for the job. There were some sticky results at the start of qualifying but over the last six games there has been a massive improvement. That suggests he has grown into the job. There has been a lot of support for the manager and you can understand why. He is popular amongst the players and everyone knows he is a very good coach. There are certain managers who you would say were great coaches but never made it as a manager but Steve McClaren certainly has the credentials to be a great manager – and is a great manager."
This, of course, is just what one would expect Owen to say. In his perceptive book on the differences between English and Italian football Gianluca Vialli noted that Italian players are far less inclined to back a struggling coach because to do so would be to appear "either a liar or stupid, and in Italian football it is not good to be seen as either". But in England, Vialli adds, players say "everything is wonderful, the gaffer's doing a fabulous job, and the players are all behind him". Vialli quotes Arsène Wenger attributing the difference to an Englishman's in-built respect for authority. Owen said yesterday it was the "natural thing" to back the manager.
So not too much can be read into the players' constant affirmations of support for McClaren. Popular he may be, but so is the kit man. McClaren does not command his players' respect like Sir Alex Ferguson does, or their love like Jose Mourinho did – and Chelsea's players appear to have got over the latter's departure quickly enough. McClaren may be a "great coach" but when pressed Owen could not think of a single specific thing, in the seven years the pair have worked together in the international set-up, that McClaren had taught him.
The tension England's players will feel when watching Israel v Russia on Saturday will be for their own sakes. For Owen it will be a flashback to October 1999 when, along with the rest of the squad, he sat down to follow Sweden against Poland in Euro 2000 qualifying. England's players were gathered together ahead of a friendly against Belgium at Sunderland. A point for Poland would have put England out but the Swedes won and England went into a play-off against Scotland, which they won.
Owen said: "This time we'll have flown home from Austria and we'll be watching it on our own before meeting up on Sunday. I'll be watching at home. Fingers crossed. The lads who went to Israel say it is a tough place to go and win."
Owen did not play in Israel, or Croatia, or at home to Macedonia, three matches in which England failed to score. Had England's finest goalscorer since Jimmy Greaves been present in those matches, and fully fit in Moscow, things might have been different. But injuries happen – Graham Taylor had to do without Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne, his best players, for much of the failed 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign, which preceded England's last absence from a major tournament. One of the key management arts is overcoming such hurdles, as Sir Alf Ramsey did when Greaves went lame in 1966.
England have not won a major honour since but Owen insisted: "We are a major force in football. In recent competitions we have been an inch away from progressing to the last four. Who knows where we would have gone from there? This campaign has been a disappointment but it is not over yet. We have to believe it is not over."Reuse content