When Sven Goran Eriksson was still the great saviour of England's football team he appeared to have urbanity to burn. Now, in his third year in the job, he looks as if he is down to the last scraps of kindling.
Kissed and told upon, beaten by Australia, ridiculed for the tactical cul-de-sac from which he was powerless to escape during the World Cup finals in Japan, and required here to reject claims that he is at the mercy of the whims of his celebrity captain, David Beckham, Eriksson has the demeanour of a man waiting for the roof to fall in.
Worryingly, there is a possibility that it will happen tonight here at the Gradski stadium.
If this calamity should come with defeat by a Macedonia team which last October came to Southampton while rated 90th in the world - between Jordan and Kenya - and played England to the verge of distraction in a 2-2 draw, Eriksson seems to know that the charge against him will be quite specific.
It will be that he has failed to impose on England anything like the consistent rhythm and certainty of purpose which marks teams with serious potential to win the big prizes.
There can be no doubt that if fresh evidence of this emerges here, the ghost of that terrible failure last summer to genuinely compete with Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final is bound to re-appear with stomach-churning sprightliness. You could almost feel its presence when Eriksson was subjected to his latest grilling in a city-centre hotel ballroom beside the broad but low-running River Vardar.
Inevitably, the hardest question yesterday concerned Beckham's mental and physical readiness for a match which has become pivotal to England's chances of automatic qualification for next summer's European Championship finals in Portugal.
Though still riding the latest cascade of publicity which has accompanied the serialisation of his forthcoming autobiography - here he was saying, as almost every recipient of big newspaper money invariably does, that some extracts, in this case those highly critical of Sir Alex Ferguson, are more than balanced by favourable comment back in the pages of the book - Beckham insists that he is aware of the importance of the Macedonia match. Bedding in at Real Madrid, the "tight" groin which kept him out of training until yesterday, the general tumult around him, would all be comfortably absorbed as he turned again to the captaincy of England.
But the concerns could not be quite so easily quelled - no more than the memory of Michael Owen, by some distance England's most consistently valuable and committed player over the last few years, saying, at the peak of Beckham's exposure during a world tour and protracted departure from Old Trafford, that he couldn't imagine operating with so many outside pressures.
Eriksson was adamant that Beckham had never been - and would never be - a special case. One difficulty with this position, apart from that decision to grant special security rights for the player and his wife at a team get-together, was that it led him to a direct contradiction of Beckham's claim that he would never play while less than in full working order.
Said Beckham, "I would never play for England if I didn't think I could give 100 per cent". It is a pretty concept but one at almost total variance with Eriksson's reading of this and past situations.
The coach said, "If someone important to you is not fit, you have to live with that. We cannot replace Paul Scholes and we would like to have Steve Gerrard, of course, but sometimes you have to accept that it is a fact of life in today's football and you have to live with it without complaining too much. We have to win this match and I think that David did a good World Cup even if he wasn't 100 per cent fit, and of course tomorrow if he is 95 per cent fit and it will not be dangerous for the future, he will play.
"A special case? I don't think so. It will not be so because David has never been a special case - and it won't change just because he has gone to Spain. I don't think he wants to be helped like a special case and no one has the intention to do it. Absolutely not." It begged the huge question of what Beckham was doing operating in a World Cup after going six weeks without match fitness - a decision which, in terms of risk, had not been seen in the England team since Bobby Robson had gambled so heavily on Bryan Robson being fit for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Older witnesses were quick to point out that Sir Alf Ramsey at various times rejected two of the greatest players in the history of the English game, Jimmy Greaves and Johnny Haynes, because he couldn't convince himself that they were fully fit - an assessment which Haynes privately agreed was right.
Here last night it was hard to repel the angst which came with the recall of Beckham's critically sub-par performances in Japan - not least the one in the Brazil game.
The classic principle is that even in the age of substitutes you go only with those players who are clearly capable of delivering the best of their talent when it matters most. In Japan Eriksson played not one key player of doubtful fitness, but two. Owen did remarkably well to give England the lead against Brazil despite the fact that he was obviously far from true fitness.
Tonight the burden on Owen will never have been greater. Eriksson depends heavily on the ability of a makeshift midfield - almost certainly comprising Beckham on the right side of the "diamond", with Owen Hargreaves on the left, Frank Lampard at the front and Nicky Butt at the back - to present Owen with at least a couple of chances. When Owen received that many at Goodison Park last week his efficiency rating was 100 per cent, though there were suspicions that after being in receipt of such largesse he was light-headed when he left the ground.
If Owen can do for Eriksson what he did for his Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, the bonus will be that it will be one of the least complicated of the coach's triumphs. Beyond any other football man, Eriksson has believed in the certainty of Michael Owen's right to an England place. His reward is to know that he has at least one man guaranteed to get the job done.Reuse content