Unusually for a sermon, the theme from a Wembley pulpit late last Wednesday night was evolution rather than creation. As the preacher was SteveMcClaren, this necessitated a certain amount of modesty; those who have judged his regime in terms of black holes and chaos theory are lessinclined to believe in the guiding hand of an all-powerful creator than random chance and the occasional big bang.
The 3-0 wins over Israel and Russia made a persuasive case for accepting that England are evolving (a favourite word from the sermon) from the sterility of last summer's World Cup into something altogether more dynamic. But how that came about is worth examining. On the last day of August, a squad of 25 was announced for the two games. Emile Heskey was not among them, which was hardly a surprise, his 22 goals in the last three seasons of Premiership football hardly screaming for inclusion. Not until the apparently devastating news that Frank Lampard (scorer of 40 goals from midfield in the same period) was out of contention with a thigh injury did McClaren watch Michael Owen score for Newcastle against Heskey's Wigan the following day and decide that they might be the pair to break down Israel's 10 defenders. Come in No 26, a player who did not even figure in anyone's top 50 when the head coach said last Christmas there were that number of players under regular scrutiny by his scouting team.
In the meantime, Owen Hargreaves, a first choice when fit for the past 15 months, failed to recover from a thigh injury, so Gareth Barry, shabbily ignored for so long by Sven Goran Eriksson, was given a proper chance at last, which he gratefully grasped. Had Lampard and Hargreaves been fit, however, they would almost certainly have played in both matches.
When McClaren, justifiably as it turned out, stuck with Heskey and Barry four days later against Russia, he was naming England's first unchanged side for 30 months. But look at the team last time that happened, against Azerbaijan in March 2005: Robinson; G Neville, Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, J Cole; Owen, Rooney. Sound familiar? Had they been fit, it would almost certainly have been the same old, same old turning out for the new competitive era at Wembley last week.
The lesson from the past week is that even if shaking up is hard to do, it can pay dividends. The desired response from those injured or left out will be greater determination to emphasise their credentials before the next double-header in October, rather than putting their caps on the table and expecting selection.
Which way will McClaren turn if, say, Lampard and Hargreaves in midfield, and Rooney inattack, are all available? Understandably, Wednesday's sermon was short on specifics, emphasising instead the importance of the collective rather than the individual. "Believe you me and state in bold letters, 'team' is the most important thing," he said. "What you've seen and what we're slowly evolving to is a team. We've got the players and the ability, everybody knows that, and if we play like a team and we perform like that, we shouldn't be frightened of anybody. We have got great competition now. It's not a problem, it's a fantastic position to be in. We'll have to see in three or four weeks' time. Everything might be totally different. Players might be injured. That's international football. You have got a gap and, for their clubs, they can get injured."
Even before Heskey broke a metatarsal yesterday, bitter experience said it was unlikely that all the contenders would be fit simultaneously by the time Estonia arrived in London for the 13 October fixture. Now the temptation will be to stick with the unsubtle approach from another 3-0 victory, away to Estonia in June, when the home side were undone by crosses to a little-and-large striking pair (albeit from David Beckham, with Peter Crouch alongside Michael Owen down the middle).
Russia's manager, Guus Hiddink, was convinced that whether Crouch or Heskey played, "we will not suffer under the high ball". To be fair, his misplaced faith also depended on "not leaving [strikers] free in space", as should never happen at this level but did twice to allow Owen two more huge steps on his long road to recovery. "It's always the same with players who have had advers-ity," McClaren said. "It's like Paul Robinson. It kills you or it makes you stronger. When you're out for a year you appreciate what you've got. You appreciate the footballer's life, everything about it, and you come back with renewed vigour and renewed motivation. There's always a fear with a long-term injury. It's up to the player to come through, and Michael's come through.
"You have to get over the last barrier, and for Michael that was, could he score? And I think he has answered everybody who wrote him of: yes he can."
Four days after the Estonia game, there will be an early rush to find a television set for the critical return match with Russia that kicks off at 4pm London time (7pm in Moscow). The danger – which will grow all the greater with an anti-cipated comfortable win against the Estonians – is one of familiar great expectations, which could be all too easily undermined by one slip on the plastic pitch that Celtic found so treacherous when they played Spartak Moscow last month.
The key fact remains that defeat there would be calamitous to England's hopes of qualifying. Russia's other games are away to demoralised Israel and hopeless Andorra, so the projection is that victory overMcClaren's team would enable them to reach 27 points, as opposed to England's maximum of 26.
Croatia, with Israel (home) and Macedonia (away) to play, should have an unmatchable 29 before the Wembley finale on 21 November, a night when all the sermons and prayers in the world will not help Andorra take points off Russia. Beat England in Moscow and Hiddink still has the last and longest laugh.
England's next Euro 2008 qualifier is home to Estonia on Saturday 13 October, live on BBC1, kick-off 5pmReuse content