'Captain Marvel' talks World Cup tactics: The long and the short of it...

...is that Peter Crouch will be a key player for England at the World Cup, especially in Wayne Rooney's absence. That, at least, is the view of former England captain Bryan Robson, who tells James Lawton there are good reasons for optimism, despite injury worries
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The Independent Football

Bryan Robson moves the salt and pepper pots around the dinner table with surprising relish. On top of his second straight battle for Premiership survival, the last one unsuccessful in the most draining circumstances, you might imagine that after a spring of dwindling hope, World Cup 2006 represents a reincarnation of his worst nightmares.

But then Robson has never been known to engender despair. He is in town to sell his new autobiography yet inevitably his pitch is also for the flag.

Three times he went on to the great stage as the embodiment of English hopes. On the first occasion, in Spain in 1982, he had the impact of a wrecking ball. In Bilbao, a place which reserves its warmest welcome for warrior footballers, he destroyed the France of Michel Platini with two goals of ransacking authority.

England, however, trailed out of the competition without losing a game, and in 1986 and 1990 Robson, the fabled Captain Marvel, was cut down by injury, the first time in Mexico when a protective harness on a dislocated shoulder failed to carry him through the lightest of challenges against Morocco.

Even then he was so loath to leave the theatre of football war he refused the orders of Manchester United to return to England to start immediate treatment, preferring to encourage his team-mates on the road to their dismaying confrontation with the hand of Maradona and the feet of his genius.

So, yes, maybe it was wrong to imagine that pessimism has surely invaded nowhere more seriously than Robson's soul as the nation frets over the fitness of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen before the opening game against Paraguay.

It is a misconception maybe created by the piercing eyes and mournful expression. The truth is, Robson is as much a believer as a fighter, and when he retreats to Florida this summer with his wife, Denise, the challenge of restoring West Brom to the top flight will never be far away.

First, though, there is his brave image of England outrunning both their critics and some grave disadvantage. He sees Peter Crouch, freakishly gaited, widely doubted, at the heart of it. He imagines the one England striker who has total fitness bringing confusion to the hearts and minds of even the favourites, Brazil.

Says Robson: "If we don't have Rooney and Owen at their best, you just don't dismiss it and give in. If we play Brazil, Crouch would be so different for them to handle with his aerial power. They would be thinking, 'Hang on, how do we cope with this?' It's a role the South Americans don't have. They don't have anyone tall and dominant like him. I know they wouldn't like Crouch and John Terry bursting into the box for set pieces.

"This is probably why the manager's looking at Stewart Downing and Aaron Lennon in the squad for their crossing ability. The Brazilian full-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos are very attack-minded and you can get at them in the spaces they leave behind. If you're getting good crosses into Crouch, all of a sudden he could be a hell of a danger. He's effective if you play to his strengths. Last season on our ProZone stats Crouch ran a greater distance than any other striker we played against. He ran over 13 kilometres [8.1 miles]. That's a lot of work - and he's a handful.

"Theo Walcott? He's not a bad wild card to have in your squad. There must be something in the reports that the manager or his scouts have been impressed with. With one gamble like that you're probably not going to go too far wrong. If it was me, though, I would have Jermain Defoe in. He's so quick and he'll score a goal out of nothing. I'd go for Defoe over Walcott."

As Robson talks, some of the contents of his book spill from their pages and make intriguing the possibility that the FA might have acted differently when Sven Goran Eriksson stumbled into his last misadventure on the luxury yacht in Dubai. Had the FA decided that its patience had reached breaking point, rejecting the idea that he would carry the nation's hopes to Germany and turned to a rock-like figure from the past in Robson, England would have a different look - and different leadership - in the next few weeks.

Certainly, if the Beckhams had still staged their publicity-blitzing pre-tournament party, it would have been without the enforcing power of the captain's armband. That would have been handed to John Terry, with Steven Gerrard his on-field aide-de-camp.

Writes Robson: "Becks wouldn't have been my first choice [as captain]. He hasn't done a bad job and he's matured, but he's not a leader on the pitch. Gerrard and Terry are more natural leaders and have the aggression that managers like in a captain. Terry has probably edged ahead of Gerrard. He leads by example, is an excellent organiser and has the presence that everyone in the team will respect. He also scores goals, a great bonus for a defender.

"My first consideration would be to give us a solid base. I look at our abundance of riches in central defence and ask if any country has three as good as ours. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell would get into any international team so if they were fit and flying I'd have the three of them in my team. They would take some getting past. I have spoken to Sven and asked him if he would ever change from a back four. He said, 'No.' I would.

"With a back three, the full-backs would become wing-backs. Ashley Cole is perfect for that role on the left. He is left-sided and likes to go forward. On the right I would play Gary Neville or Shaun Wright-Phillips, depending on the opposition and the emphasis - attacking or defending. Beckham has played in a midfield holding role, and done a decent job. He has a great range of passing and works hard but he is not a tackler and if you are in that position, in front of the back three, you have to win the ball. I think that job is made for Gerrard. He can tackle and pass and he can go forward."

It is one man's vision, tactically debatable but emotionally charged, and as the night wears on the passion of Bryan Robson seeps into every corner of his conversation. His priorities are self-evident: commitment, honesty, and, deep down, maybe, a desire for a return to that old football world he inhabited with such relentless force.

He says: "You've got to have gamesmanship - it's part of winning - but diving and faking goes too far. I had to have a word with one of my players this season. He went down for a penalty and I could see from the touchline that he hadn't been touched. At full-time I said to him: 'I've got no time for that in my team. Stay on your feet and score.

"The three changes I would make are video technology for whether the ball has crossed the line, for penalty decisions, and the rule that says a player has to leave the field when he has been injured. I know this is supposed to go against the feigning of injury, but when there is a problem, and a player has been fouled and the referee gives a free-kick for your team, you can be down to 10 men for three or four minutes. What's that all about?"

Outright cheating, as opposed to a legitimate pursuit of an edge, is a concept that Robson cannot comprehend. Twice, he reveals, opponents tried to stop him by grabbing and twisting his little finger. Did he scream or complain to the referee? "Oh, no," he says. "I just told them to fuck off."

'Robbo, My Autobiography,' Bryan Robson with Derick Allsop, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99