Gerrard takes lead in England captaincy race

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The Independent Online

The formal announcement on Friday will form the core part of Steve McClaren's new England era but it seems that the likelihood is now that he will name Steven Gerrard as his captain for the Euro 2008 qualification campaign and beyond. The Liverpool captain is understood to have edged ahead of John Terry in McClaren's thinking.

Gerrard, 26, was given the full backing of his club manager Rafael Benitez yesterday to get the job, which for a long time has been perceived as a two-horse race between the Liverpool captain and Terry. Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard have all been touted as outsiders to succeed David Beckham, but the momentum appears to be on the side of Gerrard, who led his club to the European Cup in 2005.

Counting against Terry, 25, are the occasionally lurid revelations about his private life which have ranged from his tangle with bouncers outside the Wellington nightclub in London ­ he was cleared of affray in August 2002 ­ and have more recently concerned his relationships. Before the World Cup his partner, Toni Poole, gave birth to twins but the Chelsea captain is regarded as something of a liability when it comes to kiss-and-tells.

While Beckham and, indeed, McClaren are no strangers to similar allegations, it would seem that the safer bet is Gerrard, who is regarded as more adept at handling the pressures that the England captaincy now involves. From dealing with the media to maintaining a squeaky-clean image, as well as leading the team on the pitch, it would appear that Gerrard is better qualified for the enormous job that the captaincy became during Beckham's six years.

Although he has been a successful captain of Liverpool since 2003 Gerrard is perceived as an unusually introspective player who does not fit the tub-thumping profile of a traditional football leader.

Benitez said yesterday that he had asked McClaren about the identity of the new captain when the England manager visited the club's training ground this week, but was not let into the secret. Benitez's and McClaren's relationship goes back beyond the Spaniard's arrival at Liverpool as it was McClaren who arranged for him to watch Manchester United train during a brief spell Benitez had out of management.

"He [Gerrard] is more mature and he can do both jobs," Benitez said. "Maybe if he became the England captain it would help him to be really focused on football and improve even more. I talked a lot with Steve McClaren and joked with him about the new captain, but he wouldn't tell me. He smiled, but he didn't say. I don't need to campaign to Steve. He has made his decision, he has known the players for a few years and now we need to wait."

Benitez praised McClaren for being able to make quick decisions and said that they had a strong relationship. McClaren will watch Liverpool play Maccabi Haifa tonight, Tottenham play Real Sociedad on Saturday and the Community Shield between Chelsea and Liverpool on Sunday.

"He [Gerrard] is learning and thinking more about the game. As a manager you always want to see your players improve and Stevie has the potential to improve even more," Benitez said. "Each year I hope to see him understand the game and analyse every situation better ­ and he is. [As captain] he must be an example on the pitch and off it. Stevie knows this and the main quality he has is the passion he gives on the pitch."

While the identity of the third new man in McClaren's coaching team, alongside the manager and technical adviser, Terry Venables, is as yet unknown, the way was cleared yesterday with the departure of Sammy Lee. The former England international had been a part-time coach under Sven Goran Eriksson but turned down the job of managing the England Under-21s on a full-time basis and will remain as the assistant at Bolton.

McClaren is understood not to have wanted Lee in his set-up and by offering him the Under-21s job, which would have meant Lee leaving Bolton, was able to ease him out. A full-time Under-21s coach will be appointed to work with the current coach, the Crystal Palace manager Peter Taylor, whose England role will then diminish.

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