England players insist their patriotism is not in doubt

European Championship: Beckham says team are focused on crucial qualification game despite boycott row and fears of Eriksson's departure
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The Independent Football

This evening, at last, the posturing and the protests will stop. England's footballers will have to put their feet on the ball rather than in their mouths. Their task in Fenerbahce's Sukru Sarocoglu Stadium - winning the point which will take them to next summer's European Championships - has been made immeasurably harder than appeared a week ago, before Michael Owen was injured and Rio Ferdinand dropped.

Against Turkey, England will have to overcome the loss of those players, a hostile stadium made more so by the absence of English supporters, the knowledge that the public are no longer united behind them, their own alleged divisions and the suspicion that their manager is planning his exit.

It is a demanding challenge, one they need to be fully focused upon. Yesterday David Beckham, their captain, insisted the team would do just that. "Once we step on the pitch and the fans see our faces they'll realise it's all behind us," he said. "There are no splits. In a weird way this has brought us closer together."

There was still time for one more statement, Beckham reading out the players' defence of their actions. Though there was no apology for their extreme response to the Football Association's decision to drop Ferdinand for failing to take a drug test there was, for the first time, recognition that Ferdinand was in the wrong.

In front of 27 camera crews, dozens of photographers and more than a hundred written media, Beckham, the first player to put his head above the parapet since the squad threatened to strike, was generally impressive but there were some mixed messages. To the cameras Beckham said: "I think the crisis has gone. I think the statements clear most of it up until after the game." This hinted at further action fuelling rumours that the team are to issue a post-match statement calling for the resignation of Mark Palios, the FA's chief executive. Later, though, Beckham said: "I hope there will be no more statements. There will be no calls for anybody's head."

His appearance was an attempt to convince the public that the squad were "proud" to represent England and they would do their utmost to qualify. He, and the rest of the players, were "offended" that their patriotism has been questioned. Proving it was another incentive.

"There was pressure on us anyway but there is a lot more on the players now," he said. "I don't feel we have anything to apologise for. We did what we had to do, but if people think we owe the country we can put that right. For 90 minutes people will forget everything that has been going on and if we win, it'll put everything, what the people think about the players, to rest." Maybe, but the stench of this week's unedifying events will not easily be dispersed.

Eriksson was less effusive than Beckham, especially when asked to deny reports emanating from Sweden that he had signed a preliminary contract to take over at Chelsea. It is suggested that he will resign as soon as England's qualifying campaign is over, successful or not. While this may seem surprising if England qualify, he hankers after the day-to-day involvement of club management and the eight-month hiatus between now and the finals, interrupted only by substitution-riddled friendlies, will test his patience. Qualifying would also enable him to go out on something of a high, arguing that his replacement will have time to build a team. Eriksson, the supreme pragmatist, knows that he cannot be seen as a traitor if he is to stay working in the English game.

With FA officials blocking most questions, a practice Eriksson was delighted with, his response was limited to a few nebulous comments. "My position has not changed from a week ago," he said to the cameras. He later added: "A rumour has come from wherever - I have no idea where - does that mean every time I tell you the same thing." This presumably meant he did not believe he had to keep denying the same rumour, but it would have been simple enough to do so. As Manchester United found when Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, footballers like certainty and continuity. England's players have enough on their minds without wondering whether the manager is about to resign. They clearly suspect he might. The only question Beckham ducked was whether, given the week's events, he would blame Eriksson for departing.

Eriksson did say he still "enjoyed" being England manager and he will be relishing tonight's match. The loss of Owen is serious but, in Sunderland, the match was still goalless when the Liverpool striker hobbled off. In Owen's absence Emile Heskey will lead the line with Wayne Rooney playing off him. John Terry comes in for Ferdinand. England are otherwise at full strength.

Man for man there is little to choose between the teams. The key area, as ever, is likely to be in midfield where England will have to restrain Emre Belozoglu far more efficiently than Arsenal did in the recent Champions' League game with Internazionale.

England need a good start. The longer the Turks are denied, the more the pressure will build on them. Fanatical support can become a burden, England must make sure it does. Foolish as it was, their stand this week required courage. That quality will be needed again. They must be brave on the ball as well as in the challenge.

To judge from last night's Under-21 match, in which only pride was at stake, those tackles will be unforgiving. "I will tell them the most important thing is to keep the head cold," Eriksson said. "They must not argue with the opposition, the referee or themselves." The last coda was an odd, perhaps revealing one. If the England camp is fractured, it will not take the Turks long to find the breaks.

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