James Lawton: Charlton happy to see England defend – even if it isn't his cup of tea

I'm not saying we’ll win next summer but I do feel we’ll have a good tournament

Click to follow
The Independent Football

An old reservation seeped into the bones of one of only nine living Englishmen who know how it is to win the World Cup as Fabio Capello's re-cast young team first beat World and European champions Spain, then produced the first victory over Sweden in 43 years.

Yet who knows better than Sir Bobby Charlton that there are times in life, as in football, when sometimes it is necessary to curb your most natural instincts? Charlton was asked to do this by his England coach Sir Alf Ramsey on the eve of the 1966 World Cup final and his first instinct was the same one he expressed yesterday after watching Capello's rigid tactics close out an unbeaten year with two notable and maybe psychologically vital wins. "I don't suppose," said Charlton, "I'll ever believe that defensive football is England's cup of tea.

"I don't think we are born to do it but it's true that sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand, sometimes you have to say, 'look, this is our best chance to get the results we need at this time.'

"When you suffer the kind of humiliation England did in South Africa it is necessary to take a look at what you're doing. I think Capello has done this and we are beginning to see some impressive results. For me, though, the most significant thing is the emergence of some very impressive young players. The coach is putting his trust in talented youngsters and I think it bodes very well for the future.

"I'm not saying we're going to win the European Championship next summer but I do have a feeling we're going to have a good tournament. I think we're going to be able to say, 'look, we have a good young team who have proved that they can compete at the highest level and who could have a big future'.

"When Capello first came in I was very impressed with the authority he displayed, the way the players seemed to be listening to him. What happened in South Africa was a terrible jolt but he does seem to have re-established a lot of that first authority. In the games against Spain and Sweden he has received an excellent response."

None of this, however, was enough to suppress an old surge of Charlton doubt last Saturday night when he saw an England team come out prepared to pile bodies behind the ball and live on any scraps that might be dropped from the table of the world champions.

There was also a touch of déjà vu. Charlton, who 45 years ago was celebrated across the world as one of football's most naturally creative talents, was stunned when Ramsey sat down beside him in the old Hendon Hall hotel and said, "Bobby, I want you to do a very important job for me tomorrow."

Charlton nodded in anticipation of a routine job assignment, more of that wonderfully fluent mobility in midfield and the kind of firepower that had so lifted the England campaign with the sensational goal against Mexico in a group game.

Instead of which, Charlton was told, "The biggest danger to our chances is Franz Beckenbauer. We can calculate and deal with all the other threats from some fine players – but not Beckenbauer and that's why I want you to stick with him every second of the game. I want you to go wherever he goes. You shut down Beckenbauer and we win the World Cup."

Charlton admits that it was just about the last thing he wanted to hear. He had lived for this moment of walking out on to the stage of the World Cup final and he wanted to express himself as never before, This was his moment. But no, Ramsey explained, it wasn't. It was England's moment.

As it happened, Beckenbauer revealed some time later, the German coach Helmut Schö* had issued to him almost precisely the same instructions. '"I was very frustrated," der Kaiser declared. "I wanted to play my game."

What happened was that the game's most naturally gifted players ran and played each other to a standstill, leaving the outcome to be shaped elsewhere, and most notably by Alan Ball and Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst, the young players Ramsey turned to in the final year of World Cup preparation, with the legendary goalscorer Jimmy Greaves becoming the most conspicuous victim.

The great striker has never quite recovered from the pain of his rejection – and at the time was occasionally heard humming the tune of "What's it all about, Alfie?" What it was about was the pragmatism of a winning coach, someone ready to balance the kind of industry provided by a Hurst, and a Roger Hunt, against the possibility of the Greaves genius.

It may be a stretch, and perhaps we shouldn't be too careless with the word genius, but there seems little doubt that Capello is currently involved in similar calculations. Certainly it seems increasingly arguable that there is much of a case for retaining the rump of the old golden generation, with the claims of such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard fading against the impact of such as Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Jack Rodwell.

Charlton has never been slow to celebrate the arrival of new talent and it is here that he has been made most exuberant by England's winning year. "I know Capello is a strong and experienced character," he says, "but I'm not sure that in the long term he would have the nerve to impose outright defensive football on England – and I'm certainly not sure it would work anyway. But then I do think these results are extremely valuable in what they do for the confidence of a young team and you can't question the fact that his tactics got the result against Spain.

"In playing both Barcelona and Spain, English football has had to take a lot on board recently. We have had to look at ourselves in a very hard way, and I think we are going to benefit from the process.

"The great thing is there are young players around who have shown that they can play without fear." It may be too soon to talk of Capello's Revolution but as testimonials go that will probably do for a start.