England v Spain: Plenty to write home about, Joey

Barton the main beneficiary as under-pressure coach signals end to the World Cup hangover
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A new era, according to England's head coach, Steve McClaren, begins this week with an exciting squad of players. Sound familiar? Depressingly so. The saving grace of what many might feel to be the usual unjustified optimism is McClaren's admission that England have done nothing, proved nothing and as of this moment are nothing - except third in a European Championship group from which only two qualify. The important stuff begins again next month with a testing away game in Israel, followed by a gimme against Andorra.

In the meantime, who better than Spain, England's only rivals as glamorous underachievers, to provide the warm-up act at Old Trafford on Wednesday? And after picking Joey Barton, what better way to round off last Friday than attending a Ray LaMontagne concert in Manchester, where the stand-out song was "Trouble"?

Refusing any direct criticism of his predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson, McClaren offers it only by implication, as in the greater importance he attaches to non-competitive matches like this one: "I talked to Brian [Barwick, the Football Association's chief executive] about it when I took the job, and one of the first things we said was that there are no friendlies with England. That's what we got over to the players.

"I said to Brian that to make them good friendlies we've got to have good opposition. So we've had the European champions [Greece], Holland away and now Spain, who on their day are one of the top teams in Europe - very talented, with great technique."

Restricting the number of substitutions to a most un-Eriksson-like two in the 1-1 draw in Amsterdam reinforced the message about how seriously these games are to be taken. It also improved McClaren's chances of securing the result he badly needed, friendly or not, after taking a meagre one point from qualifying games with Macedonia and Croatia; thereby setting a new record for an England manager by attracting questions about resignation five matches into his reign. "The Holland game was a big game and the players' attitude epitomised the feeling we had at that time, being under severe criticism," he said. "That came from the World Cup and the expectation of it, that we've got a set of world-class players. We haven't proved that. We've proved nothing, so we're nothing at the moment. We've got something to prove and the players want to go out and do it."

So, clearly, does the man in charge of them. But when he says "no pressure at all", in relation to himself, he claims not to be employing irony: "I'm outside looking in at the Premier League managers now and it's similar. They win a game and, God, they're great; they lose a game and they couldn't manage anything. At international level it's no different."

Whether anyone has labelled the present incumbent "great" after victories over Greece, Andorra and Macedonia is open to question. England managers from Eriksson right back to Don Revie tended to be given treatment just short of the second coming after winning their first game, but since Swede dreams turned slowly into something altogether more gothic, and tournament after tournament continued to pass without a trophy, the country's mood has hardened.

To his credit, McClaren has no real complaints about that. "There's been a big hangover from the World Cup, from every-body - the fans, the media and from the players. That's reflected in the performances in the first six months. After a World Cup they're always difficult, you always get injuries and people dipping in form, and I think we're finally starting to get over that. Once you get over the new year you're into a new era.

"The calibre of the players coming through and in the squad is raising that excitement again. What we're looking at is a massive year; for England, for me, the players, for everybody. We want to end it with qualification and in the meantime we've got very big games. There'll be swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, but eventually we'll get there."

As befits another new era, there is one new arrival and a trio of welcome returns in the long list of names invited to participate against Spain. Barton has edged into an oversubscribed midfield group ahead of Bolton's Kevin Nolan, and the selection of Aston Villa's Gareth Barry gives new hope to all those (among them David James and Sol Campbell) who thought their day had gone. Barry's versatility and reliable left foot mean he could fit in at full-back or further forward, as could Portsmouth's uncapped Matthew Taylor, who was also mentioned in dispatches on Friday.

Then from the North-east (crossing fingers and toes) come Jonathan Woodgate and Kieron Dyer, both of them more used in recent seasons to dates with surgeons than international teams and with every chance of playing if they can survive unscathed until Wednesday.

Barton, though less likely to start, will be subject to greater scrutiny, from within the camp at least. His criticisms of England players bringing out books after a failed World Cup would have been provocative enough without questioning the dedication of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, his new team-mates. Both are known to have taken exception to the comments, and McClaren would do well to bring all three together at the earliest possible moment.

He will not do so by the sound of his comments last Friday, which were: "I can't see any issues at all, because it's England. Picking Joey Barton is for football reasons, his performances on the field. He's unproven at this level, so it's an ideal opportunity for the lad. We have a core of players but you don't want that core getting too comfortable. I believe in a competitive environment."

He may just get one in training tomorrow when Gerrard, who is expected to captain the side on Wednesday as John Terry is said to be only along for the ride, launches into a tackle.

As expected, Theo Walcott has been confined to the Under-21s, whose game against Spain at Derby on Tuesday will attract greater interest than usual, as well as up to 30,000 spectators (a lesson there about sensible pricing for the Premiership clubs Derby hope to join next season). A proud Stuart Pearce takes charge of the team, to the delight of McClaren, though there is a big decision to be made after the European Under-21 finals in Holland this summer.

"You need people involved with England who epitomise England, and there's nobody more so than Stuart Pearce," McClaren said. "He's transferred that over into management and his coaching and has the ideal pedigree to take us forward into the tournament. Ultimately, it is a full-time job. I championed that at the beginning and have done all along and I feel it's a very, very important job for somebody, with the long-term development of younger players, ultimately into the senior team. A big job."

And conceivably one for the next man into English football's biggest job of all; though McClaren has to hope there is no vacancy for some time yet.

The story so far: From first of Terry to worst of Robinson

England 4 Greece 0 16 August 2006. Friendly

England's new head coach ignored David Beckham, using Steven Gerrard on the right, and found Greece obliging opposition who conceded four goals by half-time. John Terry, Beckham's successor as captain, hit the first goal of the new regime.

England 5 Andorra 0 2 September. Euro 2008 qualifier

McClaren's warnings about Andorra's aggression proved baseless in a one-sided romp against one of the weakest sides England can have played; they did not have a shot. Gerrard was the best player, Phil Neville and Stewart Downing the weakest.

Macedonia 0 England 1 6 September. Euro 2008 qualifier

Peter Crouch's 11th goal in 10 games won the points but could not disguise deficiencies exposed by Goran Pandev, playing just behind the strikers, and the substitute Artim Sakiri. Terry held the defence together.

England 0 Macedonia 0 7 October. Euro 2008 qualifier

Wayne Rooney, available to McClaren for the first time, was disappointing in a poor all-round performance, with Gerrard and Downing equally ineffective on the flanks. The head coach admitted passing had been poor.

Croatia 2 England 0 11 October. Euro 2008 qualifier

A 3-5-2 formation, used late on against Andorra, was employed and contributed to an incoherent display. Paul Robinson's howler (above) confirmed an important win for Croatia as England fans chanted for Beckham.

Holland 1 England 1 15 November. Friendly

Joe Cole thrived but Andy Johnson was wasted in another different system, this time 4-3-3. Micah Richards had an encouraging debut and Rooney, the scorer, was impressive but McClaren was denied victory by a late equaliser.

Record: P6 W3 D2 L1 F11 A3. Points percentage: 61.1 per cent. Sven Goran Eriksson: 68.2.

ENGLAND SQUAD

Paul Robinson (Tottenham)

Chris Kirkland (Wigan Athletic)

Ben Foster (Watford, on loan)

Gary Neville (Manchester Utd)

Micah Richards (Manchester City)

Rio Ferdinand (Manchester Utd)

John Terry (Chelsea, captain)

Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)

Jonathan Woodgate (Middlesbro)

Michael Dawson (Tottenham)

Wayne Bridge (Chelsea)

Phil Neville (Everton)

Aaron Lennon (Tottenham)

Shaun Wright-Phillips (Chelsea)

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

Frank Lampard (Chelsea)

Michael Carrick (Manchester Utd)

Scott Parker (Newcastle Utd)

Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham)

Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich)

Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)

Gareth Barry (Aston Villa)

Kieron Dyer (Newcastle Utd)

Joey Barton (Manchester City)

Wayne Rooney (Manchester Utd)

Andy Johnson (Everton)

Peter Crouch (Liverpool)

Jermain Defoe (Tottenham)

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