The familiar sense of wagons being drawn up around the England team was again apparent in Manchester yesterday. Concerned by the withdrawal of David Seaman with a shoulder injury, and angered by media reaction to reports of a late-night drinking session involving Steven Gerrard, the team closed ranks.
All but David Beckham, the team captain, entered purdah and the focus of his message was team unity. "We are together and will stay together whether anyone is right or wrong," he said.
This response evoked memories of Euro 96 and the mantra of "collective responsibility" adopted by Terry Venables' squad after Cathay Pacific alleged team members had vandalised one of its planes. On that occasion the players went on to achieve the relative success of a semi-final place.
This time they need only to win one match, against Greece at Old Trafford tomorrow, to reach next summer's World Cup and while that ought to be well within England's capabilities their resources continue to thin.
In the absence of Seaman Nigel Martyn will keep goal. Though 35, with 17 caps, he has never appeared in a World Cup tie and has only played in three competitive internationals. The last of these was in Euro 2000 when, having been asked to replace Seaman at a few minutes' notice, he was caught out by Romania's first goal, a freakish chip, and at fault for their second after he flapped at a cross. England lost and went out of the competition. His last England match was in August when he was beaten from over 30 yards by Mark van Bommel and spilt another long-range shot for Ruud van Nistelrooy to score a second Dutch goal. England lost 2-0.
Martyn was not prepared to speak to the media yesterday but earlier in the week he said: "People look at those games and say: 'He can't handle it'. Against Romania I remember coming to catch the ball, seeing Martin Keown running behind me and thinking: "If someone is coming in inside him I had better get there quick'. If I had pre-meditated to punch it I would have put a lot more height on the punch." He added: "Generally I have done well for England."
Martyn has also been in exceptional form for Leeds this year and it is that level of performance England hope he will produce tomorrow. It is the first time in more than four years that England have played a World Cup tie without Seaman – on the last occasion they lost 1-0 at home to Italy, with Ian Walker (who was called up as cover yesterday) unfairly blamed for Gianfranco Zola's goal.
In Martyn's favour will be the presence of Rio Ferdinand in front of him. Earlier this week the Leeds captain said the relationship between centre-halves and goalkeeper was the most important in the team. He, Martyn and Keown conceded a goal within three minutes of first being thrown together during the home defeat to France in 1999. However, they have since played more than three hours of international football in combination without conceding again.
Seaman's withdrawal follows the loss of Sol Campbell and Michael Owen. Nicky Butt, whose fitness is still being reviewed, may join them though he was never likely to start.
Of the other absentees Beckham said: "You miss big-game players and they are big-game players. Michael has been on fire and it is upsetting for him, the team and the fans that he is not playing. Obviously he will be missed but you have to overcome these things to be a great team. The French team do it."
He added: "The players who come in will be top-class players. Nigel will be under no pressure than anybody else. He is experienced enough to cope with whatever is thrown at him."
There will be pressure of a different sort on Gerrard. Though some of the coverage was excessive his foolishness in being out drinking until the early hours of Tuesday morning, just a day after Frank Lampard was dropped for alcohol-fuelled indiscretions, was hard to overstate. The Liverpool youngster recently responded to heavy criticism after being dismissed for a bad tackle on Aston Villa's George Boateng with a majestic performance in his next match, against Boavista in the Champions' League. England hope he will do so again this time.
Beckham, who offered to advise Gerrard on the pitfalls of fame, said: "We all know our responsibilities. There is a lot of spotlight on footballers and players know that. Criticism can bond the team together, but it is important not to develop a siege mentality. It's been sorted out and forgotten. Our focus is now on the game."