Beckham circus mars team-mates' gritty win

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The Independent Online

It's just as well we all know that David Beckham self -diagnoses with the precision of a top Harley Street consultant. Otherwise we might have to suspect him of simply not wanting to spend a wild night on the Caspian shore with his England team-mates.

It's just as well we all know that David Beckham self -diagnoses with the precision of a top Harley Street consultant. Otherwise we might have to suspect him of simply not wanting to spend a wild night on the Caspian shore with his England team-mates.

Sarcasm might be the lowest form of wit, but the long-suffering hands in the Beckham circus could have been forgiven a barb or two in the gale blown rain torrents that hit the Tofikh Bakhramov Stadium.

Azerbaijan are ranked 114th in the world, but they produced enough passion and at times coherent football to compound the English sense that this might just be the wrong place at the wrong time.

The hawk-like drop in temperature was the final trial in the most imperfect of days.

Worse than the cold and the rain, however - much worse, when you thought about it - was the terrible feeling of déjà vu as the Beckham storm in a soundbite trickled on.

Most of it was entirely predictable, of course. Beckham, worried that his bizarre behaviour had taken too much attention from his team-mates on their not unhazardous assignment ensured that it would happen for a third successive day when he issued a statement guaranteed to turn the stomach faster than a dubious pot of the local caviar.

It wasn't really an apology when you got right down to it. Beckham said that he regretted the trouble caused by his "honesty'' when answering a reporter's question. This suggested some kind of ambush by the media. The fact was Beckham was parading his football worldliness in deliberately fouling the Welsh player Ben Thatcher and drawing the yellow card and suspension that would be "cleansed'' while he was injured. This wasn't, it has to be said, the ill-considered response to a sudden probing question. It was a statement in an interview set up by Beckham's publicist, who had been spending much of his time this week calling newspapers with bitter complaints about any criticism of his boss.

In other circumstances this would all be rather petty if not pathetic, but as it happens it thoroughly dominated all of England's preparations for an important football match. It meant, you would have thought, that a few questions were bound to be asked.

The most pressing was how long this kind of carry-on by the England captain can be allowed to continue. The FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, perhaps unsurprisingly, merely said it was good Beckham had apologised and that the referee had dealt with the matter during the game. This reaction may be a surprise to the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, who warmly suggested that perhaps he should investigate the captain's behaviour.

Meanwhile, Beckham's team-mates had a World Cup qualifier to play and it became clear quickly enough that it was a rather difficult one. Beckham's replacement as captain, Michael Owen, who has the old-fashioned idea that a football player should mostly play football, gave England the lead in the 22nd minute, heading home a fine cross from Ashley Cole.

Any idea that this smoothed the way to a comfortable win was quickly and at times dramatically swept away. Wayne Rooney, Nicky Butt and Ashley Cole were all booked and England were required to repel the eager Azeri.

It was a hard, unremitting night played in the worst of conditions and while England took three points they must also have some serious reflection about how it was that a straightforward engagement had become so utterly complicated by the extraordinary place their captain occupied in the celebrity market.

What we had last night was an occasion for hard professionalism and determination. The conditions alone were a trial of the spirit and what came forth was an impressive show of commitment and good temperament.

Owen took his responsibility seriously and is emerging from one of the worst phases of his distinguished career. As he did the last time Beckham was suspended, he scored the winning goal and showed that leadership is something you do rather than talk about relentlessly.

Jermaine Jenas, who has long been spoken of as sure-fire international material, took Beckham's slot on the right and though he didn't manage the kind of spectacular goal the captain produced last Saturday before descending into controversy, he did run powerfully, and at pace, along the right.

It meant that in all respects the absence of Beckham was something less than a disaster.

It was a lesson for everyone to absorb: coach Sven Goran Eriksson, who has long made it clear that his captain can operate on mostly his own terms, and the FA authorities who have created a sense that this is a player who has created his own place in the game.

More than anyone though it is perhaps Beckham who has most to think about after this night of biting cold and that certain amount of comparative truth.

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